By Michael Dirda
Pegasus. 246 pp. $24.95
The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda has spent a lifetime writing about books and reading, most recently for a series of columns in the American Scholar, now collected in “Browsings.” The result is a set of appealingly conversational meditations on the life of the mind. Dirda originally described the essays, with characteristic deprecation, as “just me, maundering on about this and that, usually with a literary theme lurking somewhere.” True enough, yet the description hardly conveys the charm of these “bite-sized literary entertainments.”
In “Browsings,” the author’s personality is so vivid and immediate that a readerly rapport is established almost instantly. I have never met Michael Dirda, but I know now that he is from Ohio, and went to Oberlin; that he likes second-hand English-made dress shirts, beer and opera; and that he moved to Washington in the mid-1970s with everything he owned in the trunk of a 1966 Chevrolet Impala. This is more than I know about some of my friends.
The hallmarks of the Dirdanian sensibility include a wry, slightly avuncular tone that wears its erudition lightly, a pronounced interest in genre fiction, and a sturdy sort of common-sense approach to critical theory, all with a light dusting of lovable curmudgeon and a sprinkle of raffish boulevardier.
Cheerfully eccentric (“I was a weird kid. And some would say I’m a weird adult,” Dirda eschews the lofty pronouncement of Olympian judgment, preferring instead a hale and friendly exploration of shared enthusiasm. It is no surprise that he is a longtime member of the Baker Street Irregulars and other clubby, aggressively idiosyncratic literary societies. You and I are good chaps, his essays seem to say, with a lot in common — let’s take a half-hour and allow me to show you some things you might find amusing.
A “cheerleader for the old, the neglected, the marginalized, and the forgotten,” he loves Victorian and Edwardian popular works of fiction for the sturdy, self-evident reason that they “offer good storytelling, moral clarity, and an escape from our meretricious times.” He is, in a sense, less a literary critic than an extraordinarily well-rounded humanist, unapologetic in his belief that “reading should be a pleasure.”
Dirda’s style, likewise, is seductively transparent while being devilishly difficult to anatomize or duplicate. (Even while typing these words, I find myself consciously resisting being pulled into the undertow of his voicings, in pale imitation of his comradely purr.) The essay “Language Matters” is a brilliant micro-lesson in attention to the rhythm of prose and should be required reading for aspiring writers. Like all true stylists, he makes it look easy. It’s not.
A recurrent theme is Dirda’s love of the dustier byways of antiquarianism and of the hours spent in used-book stores in pursuit of a rare find. While not every reader will be entranced to hear about that time Dirda scored a copy of “ ‘The Other Passenger,’ by John Keir Cross, a 1946 collection of fantasy stories in a near-fine dust jacket,” aficionados will follow along eagerly.
Other entries will resonate even more deeply with certain subspecies of book lovers. “Why is it that I so seldom want to read what everyone else wants to read?” he wonders, speaking for those who, however well-read, are forever one or two books behind the cocktail-party curve. “I always feel happy in libraries and bookstores,” he writes, winning points with the bespectacled and introverted. “They restoreth my soul.”
He is uncannily in tune with the self-doubt that afflicts most writers, no matter how distinguished. It is frankly cheering to hear Dirda describe his inner naysayer telling him: “Your so-called work is completely hopeless, not even a joke. Whatever gave you the idea that you could write in the first place?”
This is balanced out by an amusing daydream in which he fantasizes about tomorrow’s critics lauding his unwritten future masterpiece. “Such essays,” the imaginary adulation goes, “change forever the way we think about literature.” This last statement, as it happens, is no fantasy.
Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.
Michael Dirda will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, on Wednesday, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m.