Take Up and Read
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.For the past twenty-five years, Michael Dirda’s shimmering prose, witty repartee and judicious criticism have graced page 15 of the Washington Post Book World. Not simply a book critic, Dirda acts a book enthusiast, warmly inviting readers into the pages of a recent novel, a fat literary biography or a mesmerizing collection of literary essays.
In the tradition of Edmund Wilson, Clifton Fadiman and Cyril Connolly, Dirda practices and teaches the art of literary appreciation, fondly sharing with his readers the ways in which he has fallen under the siren spells of the books he has met. Unlike many book critics, Dirda consistently demonstrates the power of books to change lives and to forever alter the identities of those who enter their pages.
In Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education (Norton; $29.95), a collection of over one hundred of his previously published essays and reviews, Dirda introduces us affectionately to books and authors with whom he has been conversing during his career. Each of the book’s twelve sections contain wistful and engaging reflections whose topics range from the “old masters” (Herodotus, Rabelais, the Bible) to “we moderns” (Proust, T.S. Eliot, Djuana Barnes). Dirda provides a very brief introduction to each section that sets his reviews in context.
Dirda’s hilarious and poignant introduction, where he recalls his first book review for Book World, provides a glimpse of his own view of the craft of writing as well as his ability to get lost in a book once it has seduced him with its own lively craft.
For example, writing about Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of Byron, he admits that her “superb biography is a book that one can live in for weeks.”
Although written a decade ago, Dirda’s comments on the state of reading in the modern world sound as though they could have been written today. Reflecting on Harold Bloom’s contentious yet eloquent defense of the Western canon in his book of the same title, Dirda finds fault with the book while at the same time praising it. “Certainly The Western Canon is an impressive work, uneven in places and repetitious, but also deeply, mightily passionate about the great books of the past. If only readers and teachers and scholars would take its pleas to heart and turn away from the shiny meretricious tinsel on the best-seller list and in so many of our classrooms. But will anyone listen? Like Bloom, we should all be worrying about the fate of reading in our disjointed time.”
Dirda offers a wonderfully comic portrait of one of his favorite modern writers, Robertson Davies. He is “the sort of novelist readers can hardly wait to tell their friends about. With his out-of-date, high-buttoned suits, a handkerchief up his sleeve like a priest or a magician, and his imposing white beard, he calls to mind a genial sorcerer, an alchemical marriage of Prospero and Faust and Santa Claus.”
Of another favorite modern writer, Cormac McCarthy, Dirda writes: “Like the novelists he admires—Melville, Dostoevsky, Faulkner—Cormac McCarthy has created an imaginative oeuvre greater and deeper than any single book. Such writers wrestle with the gods.”
The praise that Dirda bestows on one of his favorite literary critics, Edmund Wilson, could well describe Dirda’s own contribution to the world of literature and literary criticism: “Edmund Wilson is a literary journalist who will last, an amazing man, and, of all the critics of his time, the wisest and justest and best.”
Dirda’s fond appreciations for these books and writers easily lead us to enact one of his favorite maxims (from Augustine), “Take up and read.”
In his latest meditation on books, reading, and life Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, (Henry Holt; $17), Dirda reflects on everything from love to death in his typically inviting and polymathic fashion. For Dirda, who wrote about the influence of books and reading on his life in his marvelous memoir of books, An Open Book, our reading conducts us into worlds where we can we experience life as we never will get to live it. How better, for example, to witness the glorious passion and disheartening banality of adultery than by reading Madame Bovary? What better way to learn about the splendor and disgust of the excesses of the gustatory and alimentary than by sitting at the table with Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel? Reading books not only opens worlds but educates us for living, according to Dirda.
Once we’re finished reading all those books our teachers required us to read, where do we turn to find counsel on how to live in the world? In Book by Book Pulitzer-Prize winning critic Dirda affectionately offers up this florilegium—a bouquet of thoughts and quotations from novels, poems, and essays—as a guide to understanding our selves better and discovering the meaning of our experiences. Part commonplace book and part wistful reflection, Dirda’s thoughtful little meditations conduct us through all aspects of life from work, leisure, and love to art, spiritual matters, and death and grief. Along the way, Dirda accompanies us as a good friend, sharing with us the wisdom he has gleaned over his many years of living life with books.
In one of the most entertaining sections of the book Dirda imagines the ideal guest room library filled with “familiar, cozy, browsable, and soothing” books. The essential quality of a proper guest-room book, he says, is that it must avoid all the normal requirements of a “good read.” In his little meditation he offers suggestions for the shelves of this ideal library, pointing out that “all guest rooms are presumed to start with the Bible, Shakespeare, and at least one novel by Jane Austen.” Among other books on these library shelves are Dorothy L. Sayers’s anthology, The Omnibus of Crime, because of its “brilliant introductory essay on the history of the mystery and supernatural tale, followed by classic examples.” Other volumes for the shelves range from “any of The New Yorker’s cartoon books,” John Aubrey’s Brief Lives (“sexual scandals among English worthies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”), any good collection of letters, W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson’s five-volume Poets of the English Language to La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims and Montaigne’s Essays, E. Nesbit’s The Five Children and It, H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and The Diary of Virginia Woolf. One last item, just in case, Dirda says, is the latest edition of Leonard Maltin’s annual guide to the movies.”
In his section on love, Dirda provides a mini-course in reading about love in the western world, beginning with Sappho’s poetry, coursing through the poetry of Ovid and Horace, Tristan and Isolde, The Divine Comedy, Madame Bovary, The Good Soldier, Roth’s The Dying Animal, and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, among many others.
When discussing “last things,” Dirda advises, “Exercise, brush and floss, find your own style, dine well, keep some perspective, and be prepared.” Finally, Dirda sums up the value of a life lived book by book: “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.”
If you’re looking to chart a life’s journey through books, Michael Dirda is indeed the perfect guide. If you love books, you’ll certainly love Dirda.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as publisher of T&T Clark and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at