Get your nose out of that book

Michael Dirda's father just wanted him to do something useful

There may be "no frigate like a book," but to travel from the literary backwater of Lorain, Ohio, to "The Washington Post Book World," and from there to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism would have surprised even Emily Dickinson. Yet this is the journey taken by Michael Dirda. It's also the attraction of his memoir, "An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland." One wants to learn how he came from there to here.

The short answer: He loved books - from Golden Books, to the Hardy Boys, to Weekly Reader Book Club specials, to books by Beverly Cleary, to popular classics like "The Most Dangerous Game" and world classics like "War and Peace," which he read at 14. He even quoted favorite passages on 3-by-5 cards and pasted them around his room.

But that's only part of this engaging personal history with its own version of the prodigal son story. Dirda used books as a way to separate himself from family tensions and from his blue-collar father, who never read a book in his life. The story begins as Dirda (born in 1948) recounts one of his earliest memories: himself as a four-year-old on his mother's lap, listening to her explain "bright pictures." It ends as a middle-aged Dirda remembers his dad and wishes he could hear him yell at him "to do something useful ... just one more time."

In between, there's a running list of what Dirda read, when he read it, and how he was affected, along with evocative descriptions of his boyhood. The family would drive down Oberlin Avenue in a green slope-roofed Chevy, past the soon-to-vanish farmhouses, while the father sang about Marianne "down by the seashore sifting sand."

And there are insights about literature. Dirda defines the pleasure of reading as sound, "the resonance of a narrative voice in your head." The best writing, he explains, one wants "to listen with appropriate deliberateness ... to savor the nuances and admire the flourishes."

Ironically, Dirda was attracted to the sounds of language through his father. An unlikely mentor (it's not clear whether Dirda even yet realizes the extent of his father's influence), Dirda Sr. considered reading books a waste of time. The son of a Russian immigrant, he grew up during the Depression, and when his father died, he left school at 16 to support his mother and siblings - working long hours in the same mill as his father had.

Dirda Sr. could be difficult and had little patience with his moody, nearsighted, daydreaming son: "Think a little, just once in your life," he would tell the boy. "I don't know if you're helpless or hopeless." He wanted his son to become somebody but did not understand the person his son was becoming.

Nor did the son understand the father. When Dirda Sr. died in 1991, it seemed too late. But was it? This memoir, attempting even now to bridge the distance between father and son, says a resounding no. As such, it takes Dirda's journey from reader to writer one step further.

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson University and is the author of 'Songs of Myself: The Memoirs of College Students.'

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