The Lessons They Teach

Book cover
Book by Bookby Michael Dirda

Henry Holt and Co. 170p $17


When Michael Dirda took this summer off, discerning readers of The Washington Post Book World were most likely disappointed. They enjoy Dirda’s erudite yet accessible reviews each Sunday. The range of Dirda’s interests and the breadth and depth of his literary knowledge are quite impressive. In a given week, for example, we might read about Mozart or ancient Persian folk tales or the Bloomsbury group of British writers, or one of a number of other topics. This critic’s reviews edify, broaden and inspire us to read more and live richer, fuller lives.

Dirda fans may have missed his reviews over the summer, but during his time off Dirda typically turns his attention to longer, more ambitious projects. And his fans should be happy to make a trade-offespecially if the result of Dirda’s more concentrated labor is as gratifying as his newly published Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life.

Dirda won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of An Open Book (2003), his charming childhood-reading memoir, and two volumes of literary essaysReadings (2000) and Bound to Please (2005).

Notes is the operative word in the title of the new book because Dirda has culled much of its contents from his notebook, or commonplace book, which he has augmented throughout his 28 years as a professional reader at The Post. Dirda intended to create a florilegium of quotations, observations and reading lists that elucidate what books can teach us about reading and living. The author wants readers to take away from this florilegium what they value and can use as they learn how to become the persons they are meant to be and how to be at home in the world.

To find a place in the world, we will need a foundation that strengthens our capacity to appreciate fully what books can teach us. That foundation, Dirda suggests, is a list of patterning works, against which other authors have built to create their works. The Odyssey, Pride and Prejudice and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm are among the texts on this list. If we have read the books on this list, Dirda assures us, most of the world’s literature will be an open book to us. This foundation, moreover, will well equip us to discern what books teach us about balancing work and leisure, and the mystery of physical attraction and finding love that is deep and lasting. Rooting ourselves in foundational texts will also prepare us to absorb what books say about how to teach our children to read, how to judge a work of art’s merit and how to cultivate dispositions and the spiritual or philosophical discipline necessary to endure the world’s blows and contend with life’s vicissitudes.

The list of patterning books is one of many lists in Book by Book. Mystery fans may revisit G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown series, for example, from the author’s recommended list of books for one’s guest room. From Dirda’s list of outstanding contemporary creative non-fiction, gourmands may gravitate toward The Art of Eating by our most sensuous writer on food, M. F. K. Fisher. The Booker prize-winning novel about a doomed affair between an Indian woman and an untouchable, The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, might be the fiction lover’s choice from Dirda’s list of outstanding contemporary novels about love.

The sheer array of literature our dedicated guide, advocate and connoisseur surveys in Book by Book cannot profitably be absorbed in one reading. It would be well worth the reader’s time to revisit the text and rediscover its gems of observation, the author’s own and those from the abundant provocative quotations Dirda also includes to amplify his themes. Mencken and Chesterton are among the familiar writers quoted, while Karen Joy Fowler and E.R. Curtius are among the numerous lesser-known authors cited. Dirda’s championing of the obscure is one of his charms as a reviewer. Perhaps, however, with these quotations some explanation about the lesser-known writers would have helped readers appreciate better their statements’ import.

Unbridled enthusiasm for books is Dirda’s chief asset as a critic. This quality is readily apparent, for instance, in what he tells readers about Thoreau’s Walden. If you’ve never read it, Dirda writes, read it now. More than anything, Book by Book will renew book lovers’ ardor for books, which may prompt them to drop what they are doing to go to a used-book sale, where they will jostle strangers armed with milk crates to find the book they have put off reading for too long.

Books enrich our lives, but it is the quality of our living that ultimately concerns Dirda. Time is passing is a dominant Dirda theme, which he illustrates with a story about the Russian short story writer Isaac Babel. Arrested by the Russian secret police, he was never seen again. Before they took him away, he reportedly said, But I was not given time to finish. The indelible image of this man expressing such universal dread haunts the reader. Contemplating this man’s plight and entreaty reminds us we have a choice: we can brood or we can act. For Dirda, action is the clear choice. He writes:

To have created a garden or written a book, to have preserved a work of art from the destruction of time, to have helped the poor or the sick or the spiritually distressed, to have contributed to society more than one has takenthese are the sorts of triumphs available to any of us.

Keep Book by Book on your nightstand and refer to it often. Its lessons will help you attend to the prosaic and cope with the unexpected, the difficult and the tragic. It is an indispensable literary resource.

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