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Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life

Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life

by Michael Dirda

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A Pulitzer Prize-winning critic's often surprising meditation on those places where life and books intersect and what might be learned from both

Once out of school, most of us read for pleasure. Yet there is another equally important, though often overlooked, reason that we read: to learn how to live. Though books have always been understood as


A Pulitzer Prize-winning critic's often surprising meditation on those places where life and books intersect and what might be learned from both

Once out of school, most of us read for pleasure. Yet there is another equally important, though often overlooked, reason that we read: to learn how to live. Though books have always been understood as life-teachers, the exact way in which they instruct, cajole, and convince remains a subject of some mystery. Drawing on sources as diverse as Dr. Seuss and Simone Weil, P. G. Wodehouse and Isaiah Berlin, Pulitzer prize-winning critic Michael Dirda shows how the wit, wisdom, and enchantment of the written word can inform and enrich nearly every aspect of life, from education and work to love and death.

Organized by significant life events and abounding with quotations from great writers and thinkers, Book by Book showcases Dirda's considerable knowledge, which he wears lightly. Favoring showing rather than telling, Dirda draws the reader deeper into the classics, as well as lesser-known works of literature, history, and philosophy, always with an eye to what is relevant to how we might better understand our lives.

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At Home in the World

Live-and-let-live over stand-or-die, high spirits over low, . . . love over charity, irreplaceable over interchangeable, divergence over concurrence, principle over interest, people over principle.

--Marvin Mudrick

Over the past fifty years I've spent a lot of time--some might say an inordinate amount of time--in the company of books. Storytelling has always enchanted me, and early on I found myself reading just about anything that came my way, from Green Lantern comics to the great classics of world literature. My memoir, An Open Book, recounts a young life unexpectedly shaped by this omnivorous and indiscriminate reading. After childhood, though, I ceased being a purely "amateur" reader, only to become a professional one, first as a graduate student in comparative literature, and since 1978 as a professional reviewer and columnist for the Washington Post Book World.

During these past three decades the Post has kindly allowed me to write about nearly any sort of book that caught my fancy, and my fancy can be quite promiscuous--ancient classics one week, science fiction and fantasy the next. Despite all these hours of turning pages, I don't view myself as a bookworm, one of those bald-pated Daumier scarecrows peering through bottle-top spectacles at some tattered, leather-bound volume. There's more to life than reading. I've also fallen in love and married, spent Saturdays ferrying noisy offspring to soccer games, mowed grass, folded laundry, and suffered my share of what Shakespeare called "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to."

A normal enough life, then. Yet even as a kid back in working-class Lorain, Ohio, I decided that what I wanted most of all was--how shall I put this?--to feel at home in the world, which meant to know something of the best that has been thought, believed, and created by the great minds of the past and present.

In some ways, that ambition must sound odd, even slightly romantic. But let me explain. About the age of twelve or thirteen, I grew enamored of the story of the Count of Monte Cristo. Suave, cosmopolitan, wealthy, charismatic, the count actually starts life as a naive young sailor named Edmond Dantès, betrayed by those he trusted and imprisoned on the Château d'If for a crime he never committed. At first he despairs. But one day he hears a quiet scraping noise coming from inside his cell wall--tunneling--and in due course meets the learned Abbé Faria, who eventually teaches him everything an accomplished man of the world should know. The young sailor studies, practices, learns, remembers. And so when, after many years, he is finally able to escape and seek a reckoning with those who wronged him, Edmond Dantès has transformed himself into the urbane and accomplished Count of Monte Cristo.

Alexandre Dumas's novel remains a great parable about the power of learning and education and calls to mind one of our most fundamental American convictions: that any of us may, through hard work, fashion a new and better life for himself. As Henry David Thoreau long ago observed, "If a man advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

In childhood and early youth most of us naturally read for escape, pleasure, and inspiration; as young adults we use our school texts to learn a profession or trade; and then as full-fledged grown-ups we add yet another, perhaps deeper purpose to our reading: We turn to books in the hope of better understanding our selves and better engaging with the meaning of our experiences. Let me say, right off, that I believe a work of art is primarily concerned with the creation of beauty, whether through words, colors, shapes, sounds, or movement. But it is impossible to read serious novels, poetry, essays, and biographies without also growing convinced that they gradually enlarge our minds, refine our spirits, make us more sensitive and understanding. In this way, the humanities encourage the development of our own humanity. They are instruments of self-exploration.

For Book by Book, I've set down some of what I've learned about life from my reading. In its character the result is a florilegium: a "bouquet" of insightful or provocative quotations from favorite authors, surrounded by some of my own observations, several lists, the occasional anecdote, and a series of mini-essays on aspects of life, love, work, education, art, the self, death. There's even, occasionally, a bit of out-and-out advice.

Though my emphasis clearly remains on books as life-teachers, readers searching for any definitive answers or gurulike pronouncements won't find them here. Soon enough one learns that there are no straightforward solutions to most of life's perplexities. Great fiction, in particular, eschews the reductionist and obviously didactic, instead reveling in complication, pointing out options, at most revealing the consequences of one course of action over another. Contradiction, not consistency, second thoughts, rather than dogmatic certitude, lie at the heart of humane understanding, and all those who try to simplify experience usually only succeed in narrowing it. To my mind, life should be complex, packed with questioning, full of misdirection and wasted effort--a certain number of mistakes is, after all, the price for "living large." Arthur Schnabel remains the nonpareil interpreter of Beethoven's piano sonatas, yet he made occasional fumbles in his fingering. But to play such music as it should be played required the pianist to push himself to his limits. Schnabel's motto was that of all great souls: "Safety last."

As I assembled these pages, my intention was to produce a book that could stand, however sheepishly, on the same shelf as Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, Robertson Davies's A Voice from the Attic, and W. H. Auden's A Certain World. Above all, I hope the result is, to echo the poet Horace's old formula, dulce et utile--enjoyable and useful--a book to read slowly, to browse in, and return to.

For just this reason you might want to keep a pencil nearby to mark favorite quotations or to scribble in the margins and on the endpapers. These are the sort of pages that demand to be "personalized," amplified, and enriched with your own reflections, made uniquely yours. Perhaps Book by Book may even encourage you to start creating a reader's guide of your own.

N.B.--Some of the authors cited use the generic "man" or the pronoun "he" to refer to the totality of humankind. The female half of the population will, I trust, make allowances for this largely outmoded convention.

Quotations are usually identified simply by author; uncredited material is my own.

Copyright © 2005 by Michael Dirda

Meet the Author

Michael Dirda, a longtime staff writer for The Washington Post Book World, received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. A popular lecturer and commencement speaker, he lives with his family in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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