I have enjoyed Michale Dirda’s writing for a very long time. I even got to see him speak once and left liking him even more than I did before. He is one of those book reviewers who really do love reading and even better, he loves reading all kinds of books. The man is not a snob and enjoys the classics as much as pulp science fiction and is not ashamed of it. Add to this a relaxed writing style that comes across as friendly and smart and, well, what’s not to like about the guy?
In his newest collection, Browsings, we are treated to a year’s worth of online columns he wrote for The American Scholar from February 2012 to February 2013. These pieces are not reviews at all, more like blog posts in which Dirda shares about books he’s reading, conventions and book festivals he attends, the used bookstores he haunts and his reader’s dilemma of where to keep the piles he can’t help but bring home. He comes across as being a nerdy reader just like all of us, except he also happens to be the editor of the Washington Post’s Bookworld.
In one of his essays he mentions that the older he gets, the more he loves to read old, obscure stuff, adventure novels, science fiction and fantasy from the late 1800s to early 1900s. Problem is, he doesn’t get to write about these things very often. Now and then he gets to write an introduction to an anthology or to a reissue, but writing something in the Washington Post or other book review venue, not so much. They all want the new stuff. Which leaves him with a kind of lost feeling because he says he has
come to feel that if I don’t write about a book in a review or essay, then I haven’t actually read it. Gathering my thoughts, outlining an author’s argument, framing a few apt quotations, trying to make inchoate impressions coherent — all these activities give substance to my experience of a work, make it real in a way that ‘reading’ alone doesn’t.
Oh yes, Mr. Dirda, I know that feeling well!
He also made me wonder whether we all didn’t dream of having the same library and whether we might all go in together and do a time-share thing so that I can have the library for two weeks in December and a week in June and you can have it for a couple weeks in January and another week in August, that kind of thing. You know the library I am talking about, the same one Dirda dreams of having:
I yearn for one of those country house libraries, lined on three walls with mahogany bookshelves, their serried splendor interrupted only by enough space to display, above the fireplace, a pair of crossed swords or sculling oars and perhaps portraits of some great English worthy. The fourth wall would, of course open onto my gardens, designed and kept up by Christopher Lloyd, with the help of Robin Lane Fox, who would also be sure that there were occasional Roman antiquities — statutes of nymphs and cupidons — along the graveled walks.
Of course, if you all want to go in on this we could save some cash by letting me be the gardener. Sure, I’d get to live there year-round but I’d only need a little house tucked away on the grounds and I’d stay away from the library during your visits unless you ask me to stop by for a cuppa. At which time I would also bring you some fresh-picked flowers for the library and vegetables for your dinner. What do you say?
Since Browsings is not specifically book reviews I feel as though I have gotten off lightly and didn’t add too many books to my TBR. I must admit though that Dirda did make me want very badly a book I had no idea even existed until he raved about it: The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. I have never gotten excited about a thesaurus before but after Dirda finished with me I was a drooling mess. And then in my email came a Black Friday 30% off Barnes and Noble coupon. And I happened to have to a gift card burning a hole in my pocket.
My new thesaurus should be here by Wednesday or Thursday. So if my vocabulary begins to veer out of the usual ruts, you will know why! If it gets out of hand, send letters of complaint to Michael Dirda.
So, Browsings. An enjoyable little book to read in spare moments or before bed. Not a book to spend lengths of time with but to dip into, to browse. It whirls by faster than you expect it to and leaves you wanting more. Can’t get much better than that.