Michael Dirda is the author of the new book Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. His other books include An Open Book, Readings, and On Conan Doyle. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and longtime book columnist for The Washington Post, and he lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Q: You write, "Why is it that I so seldom want to read what everyone else wants to read?" Has that always been true for you, or has it become more so over the years?
A: Instead of simply being one more moo in a lowing herd promoting the latest Hot Title from Mr. or Ms. Big Name Author, I would rather—as a professional reviewer-- tell people about good books they might otherwise overlook.
The obvious best-sellers don’t need further support, unlike the small-press titles, university press publications and the kind of fiction or nonfiction that is lucky to receive an advance of four figures rather than six or seven.
That’s one reason why I shy away from reading what other people are reading. I hate to seem a shill for the easy, obvious books of the passing moment.
But I also just like to explore the margins, to boldly go, to paraphrase the Star Trek quote, where not enough people have gone before. There are so many good, older books deserving rediscovery, so many works in translation deserving American readers.
Some critics believe in the correction of taste. That doesn’t much interest me. I tend to celebrate pleasure—“Read at whim!” is my motto—and to champion literary promiscuity.
Browsings is packed with lists of all sorts, most of them pointing to books—often of fantasy, mystery and adventure fiction—that many people would enjoy. I do like to have a good time with a book.
Q: In your essays, you comment on the "rising popularity of the downloadable e-text." What do you see looking ahead for the popularity of the physical book?
A: I suppose that screens will gradually replace the printed book. It won’t be the end of the world. People need stories and poetry, works of history and philosophy—it hardly matters how these are “accessed.”
Still, I do think reading on, say, smartphones, tends to take away from what Roland Barthes famously called “the pleasure of the text.” The digital encourages speed and instant gratification; but a worthwhile book asks for and rewards closer, more focused attention.
Besides, physical books appeal to the eye and touch—we are tactile creatures, after all—and they carry an aura, a glamour denied to mere screen facsimiles.
That illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice, that copy of Dracula you read at summer camp, the expensive art book your sweetie gave you—these become integral parts of your identity; they’re not just a temporary assemblage of pixels. Real books don’t just furnish a room; they furnish a life; they become extensions of who you are.
Q: You write, "All of us remember the favorite books of our childhoods." What were some of yours?
A: My memoir, An Open Book, is essentially built around the books and reading that I did up to the age of 19. I grew up in a blue-collar family, my father had quit school at 16, and neither of my parents read anything but the newspaper. So books for me were always special, magical.
But from the beginning I read for excitement—the real reason we read—and gravitated to stories of adventure: Retellings of The Odyssey and the Greek and Northern myths, biographies of heroic pioneers and explorers, tales of derring-do and mystery.
I loved the Hardy Boys (and the Walton Boys and Ken Holt and Rick Brant and Tom Swift, Jr.), but also Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and The Count of Monte Cristo. I collected comics, too, especially Uncle Scrooge, the Flash and Green Lantern.
Two of my revered treasures of late elementary school were paperbacks of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Once I had finished all of the Sherlock Holmes and Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, I started on Agatha Christie, then someone told me that Crime and Punishment was a kind of murder mystery, so in seventh grade I read that. Couldn’t put it down.
From that point on, I was done with children’s books—until I quite happily rediscovered them in middle age when for a decade I wrote a monthly column called Young Bookshelf.
Q: As someone who has been a book critic for many years, what changes have you seen in the book review field, and what do you think its future holds?
A: Because of the internet, there is a lot more information and opinion available about new books (and old). That’s mainly to the good.
But the internet can be a wild place, and reputations often get made by being loud, snarky and vulgar. In contrast, good book reviewing—like good journalism—aims to be lively and witty and informed with reliable authority.
To some degree, major newspapers and magazines still supply that kind of cultural credibility and intellectual entertainment. But it’s easy for quieter, less flashy writing to be missed when there’s so much online Sturm und Drang.
Then, too, many literary blogs and online book sites tend to be labors of love. “Free” is a chilling concept for those of us who attempt to live by our pens.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently working on a big, though personal, book about popular fiction during the late 19th and early 20th century, mainly focused on British writers but with some attention to Americans and Europeans. The tentative title of this work of rediscovery and enthusiastic appreciation is “The Great Age of Storytelling.”
It is, alas, the sort of project one could spend a lifetime preparing to write, but I’m a journalist, not a college professor, so I don’t have the luxury of sabbaticals or grants to support me while I do the research. I’ve kept my day job of reviewing and peddling essays to multiple publications because that work pays the bills. Anyway, I hope to finish “The Great Age of Storytelling” by the end of the year.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Well, I hope at least a few of your readers will give Browsings a try. Not only is the book fun, but—I really shouldn’t be saying this—it makes the perfect present for any occasion.
What’s more, if you buy a copy now, I’ll throw in a blender, a set of stainless steel kitchen knives, and your very own Chia pet. Okay, that was a joke. Sort of. But Browsings really is an entertaining book. Please do take a look at it.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb