By that I mean a lifetime’s accumulation of letters, newspaper clippings, reporter’s notebooks, photocopied articles, three-ring binders, file folders, photographs, ID cards and driver’s licenses, magazines and journals (Gramophone, The Armchair Detective, Studies in Bibliography), drafts of short stories and poems — and even a few elementary school compositions and college essays. Everything has been stashed away higgledy-piggledy, a system that I’ve been known to rationalize by murmuring a line from poet Wallace Stevens: “A great disorder is an order.”
But I’m done with that. Having devoted chunks of this plague year to sorting and culling my books, I now face the more daunting task of weeding through all this memorabilia and paper clutter.
At one time, I half-imagined some institution might actually want a lot of this stuff. Really, wouldn’t the Smithsonian need props when it mounts an exhibition titled “The Washington Post — From Watergate to the End of Newsprint”? I can readily picture an installation representing Book World in, say, 1991, with life-size mannequins of office manager Ednamae Storti, critic Jon Yardley and art director Francis Tanabe, as well as three or four overworked editors. A spotlight would shine on one of these last, a bright-eyed, albeit nearsighted figure, shown seated before a Raytheon computer screen, knee-deep in galleys, proofs, review copies and, most important of all, these authentic relics — shards, if you will — of that ancient, bygone era.
Relics? Let me just list a few of the precious artifacts I’ve unearthed thus far.
A postcard from writer Daphne Merkin, depicting Eeyore, the melancholy donkey in “Winnie-the-Pooh,” as he scribbles on a piece of paper. The caption runs: “This writing business, pencils and what-not. Overrated if you ask me.”
A clipping — a magazine headline? — that proclaims, “You can afford to be a connoisseur and a rebel!”
One of my fifth-grade book reports, this one about H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines.” It opens, “The main idea of this book was danger and death.” Considerable plot summary follows.
A photocopy of “The Marriage of True Minds,” science fiction writer Charles Sheffield’s brilliant homage to P.G. Wodehouse. In the story, Lord Emsworth and his champion pig, the Empress of Blandings, switch minds. No one much notices.
A photocopy of “In Memoriam: Reid Beddow,” which editor Nina King and I wrote to mourn the death of a much-loved Book World colleague. Reid’s early and enthusiastic review of “The Hunt for Red October” pretty much launched the career of Tom Clancy.
A long 1998 letter from Knox Burger, the legendary editor of Gold Medal paperbacks, about working with Donald Westlake on the writer’s Richard Stark crime novels, which “didn’t sell very well. Never have, really in any of their incarnations. Too unadorned, too blackly existential, too amoral?”
A photograph of my hero, the English critic William Empson, playing softball in 1950 while teaching that summer at Kenyon College. Empson captained a team called the Ambiguities, which occasionally fielded poets Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz.
A gracious thank-you from biographer Humphrey Carpenter, recalling a bibulous lunch at the Hay-Adams Hotel. Carpenter, Beddow and I drank two bottles of wine, ate the chef’s top-of-the-line special and ran up a $300 bill. We expensed it all to Book World and were sternly told by then-editor Brigitte Weeks never, ever to do this again.
A contract to write about 1990 in poetry for the World Book Encyclopedia Yearbook. (I produced these mini-surveys for several years, as well as similar annual updates on American literature for Collier’s Encyclopedia.)
Multiple drafts of my recent introduction to a new Penguin Classics edition of Robertson Davies’s wonder-filled “Deptford Trilogy.”
A letter from the director of the Henry George School of Social Science, welcoming me — I was probably 14 — to a free correspondence course in fundamental economics. The course largely consisted extracts from “Progress and Poverty,” George’s masterpiece of socialist thought.
A 1996 note, on Weekly Standard stationery, that reads: “Dear Mr. Dirda, Your essays are always the best thing in Book World, and I look for them eagerly. Congratulations on another great one this week. Sincerely yours, Tucker Carlson.”
The syllabus for a course I taught called “The Art of Literary Journalism.” It opens with a quote from Thomas Carlyle: “Magazine work is below street-sweeping as a trade.” The long reading list showcases works by the critics and essayists I most admire, starting with W.H. Auden, Max Beerbohm and Cyril Connolly and running down the alphabet to Kenneth Tynan, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Wilson and Virginia Woolf. I required students to buy Joseph Mitchell’s collected New Yorker pieces, “Up in the Old Hotel.”
An ominously scrawled reply to my letter asking Richard Bachman (a pen name sometimes used by Stephen King) to review “The Dark Half,” King’s own novel about an author’s parasitic alter ego: “Dear Mr. Dirda, I can’t review ‘The Dark Half’— that bastard King won’t let me. Sometimes I could just kill him. Regretfully yours, Richard Bachman.”
The unedited typescript of “T.S. Eliot: A Personal Memoir,” by publisher Robert Giroux (of Farrar Straus Giroux). Needing to trim this lovely but long essay (it ran in a December 1988 issue of Book World), I spent a blissful afternoon on the phone with Giroux, as he reminisced about Eliot and other writers he had worked with, including Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor and John Berryman.
And, finally, a compliment from the literary agent Virginia Kidd: “You write the kind of prose that I lick up like cream — were I a cat.” She then declares that Avram Davidson is “the finest writer of short fantasy now alive,” which is saying something given that Kidd represented Ursula K. Le Guin.
Well, enough. That’s just a core sampling from The Dirda Archives. After two days of sifting, I managed to throw out a few duplicate issues of Book World and not much else. As you might guess, each box brought to mind old acquaintances — friends, colleagues and reviewers — who, like the days of auld lang syne themselves, can never be forgot. Certainly not by me.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.