From Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda comes a collection of his most personal and engaging essays on the literary lifethe perfect companion for any lover of books.
Michael Dirda has been hailed as "the best-read person in America" (The Paris Review) and "the best book critic in America" (The New York Observer). In addition to the Pulitzer Prize he was awarded for his reviews in The Washington Post, he picked up an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America for his most recent book, On Conan Doyle.
Dirda's latest volume collects fifty of his witty and wide-ranging reflections on literary journalism, book collecting, and the writers he loves. Reaching from the classics to the post-moderns, his allusions dance from Samuel Johnson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and M. F. K. Fisher to Marilynne Robinson, Hunter S. Thompson, and David Foster Wallace. Dirda's topics are equally diverse: literary pets, the lost art of cursive writing, book inscriptions, the pleasures of science fiction conventions, author photographs, novelists in old age, Oberlin College, a year in Marseille, writer's block, and much more, not to overlook a few rants about Washington life and American culture. As admirers of his earlier books will expect, there are annotated lists galoreof perfect book titles, great adventure novels, favorite words, essential books about books, and beloved children's classics, as well as a revealing peek at the titles Michael keeps on his own nightstand.
Funny and erudite, occasionally poignant or angry, Browsings is a celebration of the reading life, a fan's notes, and the perfect gift for any booklover.
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About the Author
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and longtime book columnist for The Washington Post. He was once chosen by Washingtonian Magazine as one of the twenty-five smartest people in our nation’s capital (but, as Michael says, you have to consider the competition). He also writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement;the New York Review of Books and other literary journals. His previous publications include the memoir An Open Book, four collections of essaysReadings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasureand On Conan Doyle, for which he won an Edgar Award. A lifelong Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle fan, he was inducted into The Baker Street Irregulars in 2002. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Table of Contents
Mr. Zinsser, I Presume 1
Style Is the Man 5
Armchair Adventures 9
Bookish Pets 13
This Is a Column 21
Scribble, Scribble 25
Books on Books 29
Text Mess 33
Twilight of an Author 37
Spring Book Sales 41
Memories of Marseille 45
Hail to Thee, Blithe Spirit! 49
Synonym Toast 53
Cowboys and Clubmen 57
After the Golden Age 69
Anthologies and Collections 73
Rocky Mountain Low 77
The Fugitive 83
Hot Enough for You? 87
Wonder Books 91
Out of Print 109
Thrift Stories 113
Musical Chairs 117
The Evidence in the (Book) Case 121
Then and Now 131
Mencken Day 135
New and Old 139
Dirty Pictures 145
Going, Going, Gone 149
Castles in Space 153
Waving, Not Drowning 157
Jacques Barzun-and Others 167
What's in a Name? 171
Language Matters 175
"I'm Done" 179
Poe and Baudelaire 183
In Praise of Small Presses 187
Christmas Reading 193
Books for the Holidays 197
Let Us Now Praise Dover Books 203
A Dreamer's Tale 209
Book Projects 219
Ending Up 225
A Positively, Final Appearance 231
Biographical Note 243
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Michael Dirda
The Barnes & Noble Review: Browsings as a title suggests an idyllic life of searching through bookstore stacks in quest of hidden treasures. How much time do you actually spend doing just that?
Michael Dirda: At the moment I don't have access to a car on weekdays my youngest son can explain why so this restricts my tendency to go off gallivanting. But if we were still back in the pre-Internet days, I'd love to have been a book scout, driving around the country from one used bookstore or book barn to another, merrily unearthing "treasures" during the day and drinking beer and eating kielbasa at night. But the Internet took a lot of the fun away every little shop now checks its new acquisitions online, while people who don't actually know anything about books use these little handheld devices to scan titles or ISBN numbers to find bargains. In the old days strike up the violins scouts relied on their steel-trap memories and a wide knowledge of books acquired by actually seeing and handling thousands of them. They were, in a way, connoisseurs.
Since I make my living as a literary journalist, not a book scout, I spend inordinate amounts of time either reading or writing. If only for a change, I escape for several hours every week or ten days to poke around some local bookshops and libraries (which often now have "book nooks" as interesting as many shops). I stand in line at school book sales and tend to keep an eye out for old books wherever I happen to be. When I travel, I always try to leave an afternoon to visit at least one or two shops. You never know. As Larry McMurtry famously wrote, "Anything can be anywhere." Just this year, on the last day of a high school sale, I found a fine dust-jacketed first of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for a dollar. I wondered how this book worth several hundred dollars had been overlooked during the weekend.
BNR: A thread that passes through much of your writing about books is your deep appreciation of books as physical objects, with attention to their covers, cases, heft; and to forewords and afterwords, appendices and indexes you have a whole essay just on paper. Have you always had this love for the book as a made thing? MD: In my younger days, when I was just trying to read as much as possible, I believed that the text alone mattered. But as soon as you start to collect seriously, to create a library that reflects who you are or that explores some interesting subject, you begin to see books as physical artifacts, as appealing objets d'art in their own right.
Take publishers. I love the look of books published by the firm of Rupert Hart-Davis: They strike me as handsome, elegant, and inviting. I'll pick up almost anything with that imprint, especially if it's in a jacket or priced low. In this case, I also happen to like the books written or edited by Hart-Davis, among them his biography of Hugh Walpole, his edition of Oscar Wilde's letters, and his gossipy multi-volume correspondence with his old teacher, George Lyttelton.
Still another aspect of books that pleases me is their variety within limits. You've got your paperback mystery with a leggy blonde on the cover painted by Robert McGinnis and you've got the stately New York edition of Henry James in all its splendor; there are the compact little hardbacks published at the turn of the last century by Appleton's in its Town and Country Library and today's handsomely illustrated Folio editions to which I've contributed some introductions, by the way and Big Little Books and double-elephant folios and Armed Services editions and Riviere- bound Victorian sets and on and on.
I should add that modern books, with their glossy dust jackets, tend to seem a bit garish to me; take away the covers and they look cheap. That's one reason why I prefer late-nineteenth- and early- twentieth-century books, with their thick paper, the dark tonality of their boards, the sometimes wonderful cover ornaments and illustrations.
BNR: One of the most beguiling and deceptively simple lists in your book is your list of "favorite titles" these range from the brilliantly compressed (Austen's Persuasion) to the surreal (The Man Who Was Thursday). What makes a great title?
MD: In my adolescence, I used to swoon over really "poetic" titles like Tender Is the Night or The Sun Also Rises. Not so much now they seem a bit heavy-handed. The best titles are both "catchy" and endlessly, almost mysteriously suggestive, like Persuasion, which is, in fact, my favorite book title of all time. Another that fits the bill is Charles McCarry's The Tears of Autumn, which is haunting on its own but also true to the melancholy of this great spy thriller. Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves was, in fact, often useless for Americans since it focused on British punctuation practices, but the title was brilliant and made the book a bestseller. In the case of my own ahem oeuvre, my favorite titles are Bound to Please and Classics for Pleasure. Book by Book partly foisted on me by my publisher is bland and too much like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. Readings, An Open Book, and even Browsings are just okay as titles, though the books themselves are, obviously, immortal masterpieces.
BNR: Considering your well-established and well- documented interest in used and antiquarian book stores, it didn't come as a great surprise to learn about your interest in thrift shopping. Are the impulses the same?
MD: Pretty much so. I started going to thrift stores because once upon a time you could find odd and interesting books there. Less so now, I'm sorry to say, since I mainly see rows of over-familiar bestsellers. I wonder what they do with the older titles. Toss them into dumpsters? Anyway, some twelve or fifteen years ago I tell the story in one of the pieces in Browsings I was wandering through the Georgia Avenue Thrift Shop and happened to notice what turned out to be a half dozen Charvet dress shirts, each priced at two or three bucks. I bought them all and subsequently learned they would sell new for a couple of hundred dollars apiece. Could there be more such treasures in thrift stores and charity shops? I am nothing if not my mother's bargain-hunting son.
Before I knew it I was finding Armani, Brioni, and Canali suits, cashmere overcoats, J. Press sports jackets, sweaters knitted out of cobwebs by Irish leprechauns, all sorts of things. Washington with its constant ebb and flow of diplomats and politicians was a good place for finding high-end designer clothes. After a while, though, I moved on to vinyl records, CDs, magazines, all sorts of things. But I now try to avoid such occasions of sin, having more than enough clothes, records, CDs etc., etc. Only the passion for books continues unabated, though even that can sometimes seem silly to me. It'll take me another lifetime to read all the books I have.
Still, thrifting was a lot of fun for several yeas. At the very least, I made sure that my three sons all have a couple of really good suits and some quality shirts and ties, just in case they ever decide to get dressed up.
BNR: You write about your annual "pilgrimage" to the Readercon conference in Massachusetts. In an age when Comic- Con and the like have brought the public in ever increasing numbers into the once-tiny world of science fiction and fantasy "cons," what makes a gathering like Readercon unique?
MD: I've gone to San Diego Comic-Con and had a blast. Classic comic books and movie posters, hulking Darth Vaders and competing Conans, movie previews, SWORD-WIELDING SUPERHEROINES, the chance to meet famous DC and Marvel artists, every sort of nerdy souvenir what's not to like? I even wrote about Comic-Con for The Chronicle of Higher Education. But then my closest friends are all involved in the worlds of fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, and Sherlock Holmes.
Still, Readercon is more to my taste, being essentially a literary con, one devoted to fantasy and science fiction writing, not films, without any cosplay to speak of. For me, attending Readercon is part of my annual summer vacation, three days in which to talk about books, browse the dealers' room, and hang out with some of my favorite people. I mean, where else would you find Junot Díaz identifying himself as Samuel R. Delany's driver?
BNR: Many of these essays as well as your writing elsewhere celebrates or resuscitates the work of authors and books neglected by today's readers. Who would you most like to see have a twenty-first-century "rediscovery"?
MD: The long answer will be found in my next book, tentatively titled "The Great Age of Storytelling." This will be a somewhat personal survey of popular fiction during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century but one packed with authors, some vaguely familiar, some forgotten, who are worth reading and rediscovering. Among more recent writers, though, the one I think deserves "rediscovery" is Russell Hoban. There's something about his voice on the page, his diction and tone, that I find positively enchanting, even when he is being his most enigmatic. Hoban is certainly admired by a small coterie, but he seems to me one of the most original writers of the last forty years, the creator of masterpieces for every age group: Riddley Walker, The Mouse and His Child, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, The Marzipan Pig, Bread and Jam for Frances, and many others. His late books are often very strange and not particularly good as novels, but even they are worth reading, if only for the weird way he combines myth and melancholy.
BNR: You write that you long ago took to heart Cromwell's famous plea to the Church of Scotland, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." You note, "Not really the ideal motto for a critic, but there you are." Do you think of yourself as more self-doubting than most critics? More open to the possibility of being wrong?
MD: In fact, I don't think of myself as a critic at all. I'm a reviewer and essayist. I mainly hope to share with others my pleasure in the books and authors I write about, though sometimes I do need to cavil and point out shortcomings. The pieces I've written for the Barnes & Noble Review appear under the rubric "Library without Walls" because I do believe it important, as well as exciting, to read beyond the books of the moment and not to restrict oneself to books written in English.
I wish I were as sure of anything as some critics are about everything. The very word "critic" I find a bit pretentious. Still, I do like and agree with R. P. Blackmur's phrase: "Criticism is the formal discourse of an amateur." After all, an amateur is, etymologically, one who loves.
BNR: Speaking as a widely read person, is the widely read person wiser than others?
MD: I wish. Think of all the widely read but terribly flawed human beings in academe. The whole "campus novel" subgenre is made up of fools and knaves. In general, though, reading in many genres and cultural traditions like travel can't help but broaden one's perspective, enlarge one's sympathies. It's the people who build their lives on a single book be it the Bible or the Koran or any other who tend to become fanatics. Adventurous reading allows one to escape, a little, from the provincialities of one's home culture and the blinders of one's narrow self.
But it's thinking hard and long about what you've read, or experienced in life, or suffered through the years, that brings wisdom. And not always then. Questioning received values, skepticism, curiosity, love and sympathy for other people, openness to the new these are the traits of a good reader as well as a wise man or woman.
August 12, 2015
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
BROWSINGS is a great assembly of Dirda’s essays and reviews of the writings that we all love. There have been other collections that focus on books... but this one is a personal peek into the heart of this reader and book reviewer, Michael Dirda, as well as into the books he passions. Sure to please any bibliophile or perpetual reader such as myself. There are great recommendations for antiquated and unusual books, if they can be found in bookstores or borrowed from the library.