July 2006

Joanne McNeil

nonfiction

Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda

"[The] young are all what English professors would label 'bad' readers: They identify with a story's hero or heroine, and they daydream about being as resourceful as the Boxcar Children, as brave as Brave Irene, as clever as Dido Twite or Ulysses," Michael Dirda wittily observes in Book by Book.

The Washington Post’s Book World is one of the best newspaper supplements in the country, due significantly to the nearly thirty years Dirda has served as editor and columnist. Even his chatroom transcripts on the Post's websites are rich with his friendly wit and vast knowledge of literature. But in this book, Dirda can't write directly to sci-fi-loving suburbanites or retirees seeking his recommendations for war memoirs, nor is he digressing from a selected book to review. Its lack of foundation deemphasizes the personal nature of reading and in the end confuses more than it advises.

We're all "bad" readers to a certain degree. Fiction springs to life after coupling with the reader's empathy. We synthesize our ideas and experiences with those of the characters; the frigate, as Emily Dickinson called it, is our voyage using the author's map. That is why this compendium of lists and quotations often fails, in Dirda's own words, to "invite us to love what [he] loves." 

Well, actually, those were theological historian Robert Wilken's own words, quoted by Dirda. A quotation out of context is a fortune cookie's content. "Miss Brontë, Miss Brontë," chanted the Career Girls of Mike Leigh's 1997 film, each blindfolded and flipping a worn copy of Wuthering Heights before pointing to her destiny. This ritual produced a satisfying outcome for one ("Must come!"), but their interpretation of that phrase was far different from what Brontë must have intended.

Similarly, the quotes that make up about half of Dirda's book often fail to inspire. At the risk of exposing too much of my own neurosis, I was particularly moved by his quotes from Jean Cocteau ("What others criticize you for, cultivate it: It is you") and Nietzsche ("So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own truth path but on someone else's.") But without references I am left combing an oeuvre's curdled bowels of letters and lesser works.

If the book were instead about indie music, it would be several Xeroxed Russian Constructivist-inspired pages stapled together and stacked by the doors of a Wicker Park vintage shop. That's a fine enough format to get someone to download several new songs; but not quite enough impetus to buy an eleven-album box set; nor has Dirda convinced me of the necessity of The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

At its best, Book by Book reads with the unpretentious erudition of Dirda's columns -- with taste as wide-ranging and informed as his, he is bound to surprise you in several areas.  But, given the space constraint (172 pages) and somewhat disorganized format, readers get more from his Book World archives and transcripts.

Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda
Holt and Co.
ISBN: 0805078770
172 pages