Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda 2005

Dirda won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1993 and for the last 30 years, he’s built on that work in the Washington Post Sunday book review, a series of columns in The American Spectator, and this, his third collection of writing about reading.

I’ve read his two prior works, ‘Readings’ from 2000 and ‘Browsings’ from 2015, and this volume nestles nicely between them.  As in the other books, the scope of his reading is awe inspiring as he dives deeply into everything from children’s books to gothic mysteries, philosophy to literary classics, and poetry, love stories, and even scince fiction.  As in the other books, many of the authors he cites (and he correctly describes it as ‘hundreds’) were unfamiliar to me, and it would have been easy to emerge from these pages with another list of dozens of ‘to be reads’.  He provides some guidance in the last 12 pages with a list of a “Selective and Idiosyncratic Who’s Who’ that includes authors as well known as Colette, Robertson Davies, M.F.K. Fisher and others so obscure, I still can’t recall why they might have been included.

Like so many of the library of books about books and about reading, Dirda’s observations are personal and as he himself labelled them ‘idiosyncratic.’  What he takes from this life of reading is the idea that in the words of Adam Smith, ‘the glue holding society together was our ability to sympathize and identify with other human beings.‘ and the best way to develop that ability is through reading.  ‘The beauty of words, the sound and fall of sentences, a writer’s distinctive voice rising from the page—these, in the end, provide the greatest and most lasting pleasures of a reading life.  At another point he quotes Marvin Mudrick, a literary critic who said “You don’t read for understanding, you read for excitement.  Understanding is a product of excitement.”  Well said, Marvin!

I couldn’t agree more.  Read Dirda and then close your eyes and pretend you’re sharing a coffee or beer with this polymath and talking for hours about books.  A great pleasure!