Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Readings by Michael Dirda

This is a kind of book I enjoy reading, but don't enjoy writing about: I could so easily get so hermetic here, and I feel like I reflexively do that in my writing even when I don't have a good excuse. So maybe this is a day for a just-the-facts exercise.

Readings is a 2000 collection of essays by Michael Dirda, which originally appeared in the Washington Post Book World from 1993 to 1999, during which years Dirda was an editor of that fine publication. (I mean, he was an editor there long before that, and as long after that as Book World was still a thing - I'm pretty sure it isn't, now - and I think he still has an association with the remnant Post, even today.)

The column "Readings" was a very general thing, with no specific remit or focus. Dirda refers to it as "literary entertainments," and each one is a discrete essay, or group of related bits (or, in one case, playscript) about something-or-other related to books, or reading, or Dirda's life as an editor, or the intersection of all those things. It appeared once a month from 1993 though some point after that - at least a bit into this millennium, I think, and maybe longer, since he got a second book, Bound to Please, out of it in 2005 - and ran a few hundred words each time, long enough to be three to five pages in a book like this.

Readings the book collects forty-six essays from "Readings" the column, which the math whizzes among us can calculate covers not quite four years of a monthly column. The book does not explain what's in and what's out, or date any of the pieces - though some of them are clearly from the early days and others ominously mention Y2K in a very late-1999 way - and my guess is that they were assembled to make a pleasing structure and include Dirda's favorites of his columns, maybe with a tropism to displaying the variety of things he got up to.

Every single column talks about books, and, assuming your tastes are anything like Dirda's (and, otherwise, reading this book is unlikely to be pleasant), it the kind of thing that will send you scurrying to write down titles, as he lists his five favorite something-or-others that includes three books you love and two that you've never even heard of.

Dirda is a lively writer with a decent line in self-deprecation, who has read widely and likes a lot of different things. He has a very clear expertise in and enthusiasm for and cheering interest about books by old dead white guys, which he intermittently mentions as a potential drawback - for some readers this may come across as condescending or counterproductive, especially the less one demographically mirrors Dirda himself (white, male, privileged, Boomer, Ivy PhD, etc.).

The wide reading but canonical focus can come across in odd ways: Dirda will rejoice in Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance multiple times during Readings, but I didn't see anything about Toni Morrison or Amy Tan. (Or any similar writers, to be clearer.) Dirda is an excellent guide to the great books written by white guys, in whatever genre they chose. But maybe not for books by those who are not white and/or not guys.

This book is also twenty years old, but it was slightly old-fashioned even then, which means time doesn't hurt it as much. The au courant dates much more quickly than the deliberately retro.

I have a few dogeared pages in my copy, and I expect to go add a number of books to my to-read list because of it. And I think I'm going to keep Readings on my shelf (unlike a lot of things I read these days) and maybe refer to it later for other books I might want to read. That's definitely a specific level of recommendation I can make, though I will repeat my earlier caveat: Dirda is a good guide for a very specific kind of canon, but that's not the only canon any of us should pay attention to.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good news. The WaPo Book World came back this fall .

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