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Archive for the ‘Michael Dirda’ Category

There is a special place in my heart, in the hearts of all readers I suspect, for books about books.  They are the tangible equivalent of a book blog, where we share our love of all things bookish with one another.  We are the writers and the readers – an uniquely insular tribe that cleaves tightly to one another, always eager to share a new favourite title or expound on the joy of a newly discovered bookshop.  And the best testament for a book about books is not just how much pleasure you gain reading it but how many new titles it adds to your to-be-read list.

Judged by that standard, Browsings by Michael Dirda is one of the best of the genre.  And judged by any other standard I can think of it, it still remains one of the best.

Dirda is well-known for his works of literary criticism and has published a number of volumes of criticism (none of which I’ve read though I hear they are rather dry).  However, this book brings together the more casual columns he wrote for The American Scholar.  They reflect on his readings, general bookish topics, and really anything that takes his fancy.  They are warm and friendly and just what personal writing about books should be, chock full of obscure titles he loves or has just unearthed in one of his frequent book-buying jaunts.  His personal crusade is “…to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books.”  I am always ready to be enticed by books, making me the perfect audience.

Dirda is a book-buyer par excellence and there are many enjoyable accounts (and rationalisations) of his fruitful browsings in used bookstores.  One of my favourite images is from a memory of a long ago book buying trip in upstate New York, where he found a bookseller’s office that was “half book barn, half gentleman’s study, and completely wonderful.”  It turns out that accounts of other people buying books is just as interesting as going shopping yourself (something, I think, many book bloggers have already discovered).

Most importantly, Dirda is a reader who knows himself and what he likes: “What I like to see on bookcases or steel shelves is lots of pre-World War II fiction, most of it looking just slightly better than shabby.” He has a particular interest in Science Fiction, a genre I’m not terribly familiar with but am now eager to explore, and loves adventure novels so much that he created and taught two fantastic sounding courses at the University of Maryland: “The Classic Adventure Novel: 1885-1915” and “The Modern Adventure Novel: 1917-1973”.  The reading lists make them sound like the most fun you could possibly have at school, including gems like King Solomon’s Mines, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Lost World, These Old Shades and The Princess Bride.  (I feel like this could also be Kate’s dream course.)

I ended up with an amazing variety of books to add to my to-be-read list when I finished this.  Volumes of diaries, biographies of obscure historical figures, Science Fiction short story collections, and, my favourite, travel memoirs.  His recommendations will keep me busy for a long time to come.

Books about books are only satisfying when you and the author have some common ground.  With Dirda, I found someone who loves many of the same books I do, enjoys the same bookish pursuits as me, and is just generally a kindred soul.  And, more importantly for this reader, his enthusiasm transfers wonderfully onto the page, making for one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

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