Oct 16, 2008

Book by Book by Michael Dirda (and Read-a-thon!)

Book by Book – Notes on Reading and Life is a short collection of essays by Michael Dirda about topics that include reading (of course), education, leisure, work, love, writing, philosophy, health or even death. They are complemented by lots and lots of book recommendations, and some of Dirda’s favourite book quotations – all relevant for the theme being discussed in that particular section of the book.

A book of this sort runs the risk of becoming didactic in a “I-know-more-than-you-so-bow-to-me” sort of way, but Michael Dirda’s attitude is the absolute opposite of this. He’s a Pulitzer-winning critic and he’s obviously a very well-read and learned man, but he isn’t arrogant or authoritarian in the least. In fact, that’s why I became interested in Michael Dirda to begin with. Dark Orpheus posted some quotes of his that made me realize that he was a kind of professional critic that unfortunately seems to be rarer than I would like: the kind who isn’t elitist, who reads widely and across genres, and who is genuinely enthusiastic about books and not ashamed of the fact at all. Dark Orpheus once worded it perfectly: she said that unlike other critics, Michael Dirda doesn’t seem to look at his job as a form of pest control.

In this book, he recommends authors like Proust or Joyce, Plutarch or Dante, Updike or Richard Russo. But also authors like Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, Ursula Le Guin, Lord Dunsany, Charles Adams, etc. How could I not love him? He’s obviously not at all concerned with whether or not books are considered Proper and Respectable Reading Material. Plus, in the very same page he recommends Little, Big, Possession and The God of Small Things, which filled my heart with joy. Right after that comes The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I haven’t read, but the sequence alone means that I must.

A few favourite passages:
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.

It does seem to me that critics and reviewers can be loosely divided into two camps: Those who never let you forget that they are judge, jury, and, if need be, executioner; and those who humble themselves before a poem or novel, waiting for it to reveal its secrets to them. The first kind of critic aims to absorb the book; the second hopes to be absorbed by it.

Don’t harp on “good books”. Remember how boring you thought required school reading as? Nothing kills what pleasure a novel might offer like ordering a kid to read it just because it’s won a Newbery or Coretta Scott King award. Roald Dahl pointed out that what really matters in children’s books is that they be so entertaining that they ‘convince the child that reading is great fun.’

In fact, the rapport between a reader and his or her book is almost like that between lovers. The relationship grows, envelops a life, lays out new prospects and ways of seeing oneself and the future, is filled with moments of joy and sorrow; when it’s over, even its memory enriches as few experiences can.
Don’t you love him already? I found Book by Book a complete delight. The only problem is that it’s a dangerous book. Look what I ended up adding to my wishlist because of it:
  • The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  • A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
  • Amy’s Eyes by Richard Kennedy
  • Supernatural Tales by Vernon Lee
  • The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris
  • In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
  • The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
  • The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr
  • Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
  • Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  • Cane by Jean Toomer.
Have you read any of these? What did you think?

On top of everything else, Michael Dirda liked Nation. Which gives him extra cool points.

Other Blog Reviews:
Hello, My Name is Alice
The Bluestocking Society

(Let me know if you reviewed it as well.)

I hope nobody has forgotten that the Read-a-thon is the day after tomorrow! If you're still thinking of signing up, it's not too late! And do keep in mind that just because it's a 24 hour Read-a-thon it doesn't mean that you have to read or stay awake for the whole of it, or start at the time it officially starts or anything like that. You can join the fun for however long you'd like.

For those of you who subscribe to my blog and aren't particularly interested in the Read-a-thon, I apologize in advance for bombarding your feed readers with posts this weekend. I'm not sure if I'll be able to stay up the whole time, but I'll be around for as long as possible, both reading and helping Dewey with the administrative side of things.

Tomorrow I'll post about the books I plan on reading, with pictures and perhaps opening lines, since I loved Debi's idea so much. I will also do some last minute preparations, aka stockiup on coffee and snacks :P Maybe I'll post pictures of that as well.


  1. I'm totally addicited to books like this. This is one that I don't have, and I think I must get it now. I do understand what you mean about elitist critics, and I like the fact that he doesn't pronounce judgment on books. As I learned in library school, "there's a reader for every book and a book for every reader."

  2. Enjoy the readathon. I'll be reading, but unfortunately it is studying rather than pleasure!

  3. I love Amy's Eyes, which no one else seems to have heard of. But Wolves of Willoughby Chase didn't thrill me. (Although you wouldn't know it from reading my post on that one. I wrote it early in my blog days, when I was mostly complimentary to books)

  4. Lisa: So am I! And that library school motto is a perfect example of why I think librarians are awesome :D Michael Dirda strikes me as the kind of critic who, when he reviews a book negatively, acknowledges the possibility that the book just didn't work for him, but it might work for others. And he seems disappointed not to have liked it, because he wanted to enjoy the reading experience. This seems really, really obvious, but unfortunately among literary circles it isn't.

    Mariel: That's too bad. The exact same happened to me at the time of the last read-a-thon. Hopefully you can make it next time!

    Jeane: I'd never heard of either author, and I'm quite curious about them.

  5. I haven't read any of the ones you list, but I have read The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, and was underwhelmed. I don't think that's representative, though, because I think she primarily writes dark fantasy/horror, which JABC was most definitely not, so her other books that are more "in-genre" might well be better.

  6. So--plans changed and I'm officially signed up for the read-a-thon!! I couldn't be more excited and I'm so glad you'll be doing it this time as well. Yaaaaayyyyyyy!! :D Poor Debi's already gotten an earful today...

  7. The only one I've read on your list is Cane - but I've only read parts of it. Have fun with the marathon!

  8. Woot! Fantastic review, Nymeth. Those quotes really brought back fond memories of reading Dirda's book. Like you, I also ended up getting some of the titles mentioned there.

  9. I haven't read A Child's Christmas in Wales but I have heard it done on the radio. It is utterly lovely, like all Dylan Thomas.

  10. This does sound like a dangerous book!
    I've heard of a couple (have had The World of the Shining Prince on my wishlist for ages) but haven't read any of those you listed!
    I think I need to go stock up on snacks too. Looking forward to the read-a-thon! :)

  11. Hello! Sorry about the prolong blog absence. Finally managed to log on via the Starbucks wifi today after much difficulties.

    You chose a wonderful quote from Dirda. It says so much about allowing yourself to be transformed and uplifted by reading. Reading should be about love, and should be approached with much tenderness.

    I brought In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin with me to Turkey a while back. Maybe it's the experience of reading him in the evening while you're at a dirty bus-stop waiting for your bus, which is 2 hours late - but I never finished the book.

    While there are some good bits in the book, Chatwin can be dry as a bone at times. But he is most readable when he talks about his favourite themes - the idea of exile, of nomadism, that our natural state is that of the wanderer, and the danger of being possessed by our possessions.

    But Chatwin is also a liar - he knows facts is only secondary to a good story. So, take him with a pinch of salt. :)

    Until later, when I can catch some wifi.

  12. "Don’t you love him already?"...Yeah, I really think I do. I know I'll be looking for this book!

    Just one more day to get through! I can hardly stand the waiting!

  13. Hurray for the read-a-thon! I'm so excited about it! I'm looking forward to seeing your list of books and snacks! I've partially made my lists, but they are complete yet.

  14. I've heard such good things about Dirda's book, and I really do want to read it some day.

    The only one on your list that I've read (many, many times) is A Child's Christmas in Wales. It has been a part of our Christmas tradition since before our first child was born.

  15. Firefly: Yes, it's her dark fantasy books that Dirda mentions. He says something about the Jane Austen Book Club either, actually, but I can't remember what it is.

    Trish: I'm so glad you're joining us :D

    Alyce, thanks! I think I will :)

    Alice: I know that before long I will be getting some of these books too. Dirda is very dangerous :P

    Christine, I really look forward to reading it!

    tanabata: I actually wondered if you'd read that one. I'm so glad you'll also be read-a-thoning this time :D

    Dark Orpheus: Hello! It's great to hear from you :) I like what you're saying about reading being about love and tenderness. Unfortunately most of the academic world seems to have forgotten that, which is why I have the daily desire to beat people with a stick :P And thanks for the heads up on the Chatwin book.

    Debi: Not much longer to go now! lol, we're like kids waiting for Christmas :P

    Laura: I look forward to seeing your list too!

    Jenclair: I think I'll read Dylan Thomas' book this Christmas!

  16. I've wanted to read this book for a while, but I keep forgetting about it. As I was reading your review, I thought it sounded like a pretty dangerous and then you confirmed it! Even though I've just added this (again) to my TBR list, I think I'll wait a while until I get this one. My unread book pile is going to topple over and kill me one of these days.

  17. Sounds like an interesting book. I enjoyed the passages you posted, especially the one about reading books for entertainment, not because it won awards.

    Hope you enjoyed the readathon. I didn't participate this time. Still trying to catch up in Google Reader. I'll enjoy reading all about it, though!



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