September 2015

Brad Babendir

nonfiction

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books by Michael Dirda

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books is a collection of the weekly essays Pulitzer Prize-winning literary journalist Michael Dirda wrote for The American Scholar between February 2012 and February 2013. The columns are whatever Dirda wanted them to be at the time, almost always bookish in nature. Though he often writes of books I've never heard of and of authors I do not know, there is always something exhilarating about his work. Quite simply, Dirda loves books, possibly more than anyone else in the world, and he can make the reader feel that love.

His enthusiasm is derived not just from love of literature, but also from physical books themselves. There are numerous essays detailing the days or weekends he spent searching through stacks and shelves and stores to uncover hardback first editions of aging books. He says he tries not to buy copies of books he already has, but that's a guideline, not a rule. For anyone who lives in the area, the book can serve as a type of guide. Numerous bookstores are mentioned by name and location for those interested in visiting.

His Maryland home feels to the reader something like a museum that's opening up in a few weeks. Scattered everywhere are unique artifacts. In his basement, it seems more likely for one's foot to hit a box of books than it is to hit the floor. He is a collector, through and through, but to call him just that does not cover it. He is the collector. These essays serve not just as a chronicle of his experience, but as a reading list for the audience. Although many are out of print and many are obscure and many are both, a writer with authority is letting the reader in on what he spends his time searching for and devouring.

Some of the book's most thought-provoking essays, though, deviate from book talk entirely. The most moving in the collection regards the shooting that took place during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. Dirda and his wife are visiting in-laws in Ohio, but their son lives in Colorado, about 15 minutes away from the theater. The fear he and his loved ones experiences is visceral and consuming. They all recognize how unlike their son it would be to go to a showing at that time, and how unlikely it is that he would go to that theater, instead of a closer one. Until their phones lit up with a text from him, worst-case scenarios persisted.

In another, called "Money," Dirda discusses the economic climate in the United States. He quotes Henry VI -- "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." -- and adds that since that play's writing, lawyers have a lot of company. He's admits to being a poor economist, but continues to explain his views just the same. Vaguely, he thinks that "most people either make too much money or not enough money," and, specifically, he thinks that "the highest paid profession would logically be that of the schoolteacher." There's no impression that what he's suggesting is doable or supported by many. It does feel reasonable, probably because it is reasonable, even as he recognizes his suggestion's own impracticalities. It is an essay by a passionate, levelheaded person that comes across as passionate and levelheaded. Dirda is not preaching here. He is simply sharing.

Perhaps the most intriguing essay for literary types is "Book Projects." He confronts the intersection of the expectations of other people -- that he should be writing a book -- and his own problems -- it's really hard to write and publish a book. Despite the success of the previous works that are bound with his name on the cover, he says the types of books that he wants to write are not the type of books publishers want to publish. And the ones that do wish to publish his work don't want to pay him enough to justify taking the time. Writing is sometimes thought of as something made possible through sheer force of will, but dollars and cents make a big difference. It would be tough for Dirda to keep making money if he spent all of his creative energy on a project that wasn't yet returning anything to his bank account. The essay is a little "inside baseball." It's also eye opening. For a critic who has won the Pulitzer Prize to say that he is refraining from embarking on a new book project because he has not found a publisher willing to give him a large enough advance is an important reminder that the book business (and the newspaper business and the magazine business) is tough and not very lucrative.

The gloomier essays, though, are still peppered with Dirda's charm. His prose has a generosity, a warmth. Reading Browsings is an unusually joyful endeavor. Even if the book recommendations and used book shops are not inherently of interest, there's something fascinating in reading whatever a brilliant critic wants to write about.

Dirda's work is brimming with good nature. It gives. In the forward, he asks that readers only read a couple of essays each sitting. He insists they will like the book more that way. Frankly, he's asking more than he thinks he is. Writing like this is so digestible and so delicious, it's hard to say no to more.

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books by Michael Dirda
Pegasus Books
ISBN: 978-1605988443
336 pages