Michael Dirda's life story is one that ought to offer encouragement to the struggling child in each of us. Born into a working-class family in a downtrodden, rust-bucket Ohio burg, Dirda's academic life could hardly have gotten off to a worse start. When he was a fourth-grader, teachers at his public school saw so little promise in the dreamy, offbeat child that they urged his parents to place him in a school for children of substandard intelligence.
Today, Dirda reigns as one of the premiere book critics in the United States. A man whose reading tastes run unfathomably wide and deep, Dirda holds a PhD in comparative literature and since 1978 he has worked for The Washington Post where he is a columnist and book critic. In 1993 he received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.
So when Dirda offers to share his thoughts on the way that books can transform one's life, it's probably worth paying attention.
Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life is not the story of how Dirda's life has been shaped by and intertwined with books. (That tale has already been told, and charmingly so, in Dirda's 2003 memoir "An Open Book.") "Book by Book" is instead a slender but pleasing volume that shares some of what Dirda loves best in literature and at the same time offers tips for finding a fuller life through books.
Scattered throughout "Book by Book" are various lists: 16 superlative examples of creative nonfiction; a handful moral essayists you should not miss; some accessible works of film and art criticism; literature to help you tap into the holiday spirit; and even a list of 13 pieces of great music absolutely not to be missed.
Dirda also shares with readers a miscellany of quotes he has enjoyed over the years ("An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man's entire existence" - Honoré de Balzac, or "What others criticize you for, cultivate: It is you" - Jean Cocteau); a handful of his own pronouncements on literature ("Five Propositions About Poetry"); and a smattering of personal life wisdom ("Read aloud to your children" and "Dine well.")
Most true bibliophiles love lists, and for those who read widely it will be a pleasure to match their own experiences against those of Dirda.
Dirda casts a fantastically broad net when it comes to his personal reading habits. He writes, "My fancy can be quite promiscuous - ancient classics one week, science fiction and fantasy the next."
In his experience as a critic, he has written warmly of everything from certain Harlequin romances to the works of Herodotus. (In his memoir he explains that he learned moral complexity from Beverly Cleary and independence of thought from Henry David Thoreau.)
The impressive scope of Dirda's enthusiasm makes the perusal of his favorites an experience that is as unexpected as it is unpretentious. He's not afraid to praise mass-market favorites (in one chapter he encapsulates the life wisdom offered by Dr. Seuss) even as he urges readers to be willing to tread more sophisticated and less regularly traveled literary byways. ("Dom Casmurro" by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is recommended to those looking for love stories.)
Dirda can be a bit peremptory in his pronouncements about what others should read (to those who have never read Thoreau's "Walden": "Read it now"), but at the same time he displays a wise compassion. ("The novel-reader cannot read too many books of high purpose and harrowing dimension or do so too often. Burnout, a failure to respond with the intensity literature demands, is the result.")
He also makes a point of reminding his readers that there's more to life than books. He himself, he points out, despite his devotion to the written word, has also "fallen in love, married, spent Saturday ferrying noisy offspring to soccer games, mowed grass, folded laundry, and suffered my share of what Shakespeare called 'the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.' "
The main reason to read "Book by Book," is to savor Dirda's enthusiasm for the experience of reading. "It is impossible to read serious novels, poetry, essays, and biographies without also growing convinced that they gradually enlarge our minds, refine our spirits, make us more sensitive and understanding," writes Dirda. But at the same time, he insists, "A work of art is primarily concerned with the creation of beauty."
In other words, reading can make us better, but first and foremost it is an activity designed to give us pleasure. And Dirda's pleasure in books is palpable throughout. "What has ever been better than to be a ten year old with books like these to open on dark and stormy evenings?" he asks in a section on mystery and adventure books for children. "Book by Book" is aimed at all of those who would answer: "Absolutely nothing."
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(one critic's list)
• The Bible (Old and New Testament)
• "Bulfinch's Mythology" (or any other accounts of the Greek, Roman, and Norse myths)
• Homer, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey"
• Plutarch, "Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans"
• Dante, "Inferno"
• "The Arabian Nights"
• Thomas Malory, "Le Morte d'Arthur"
• Shakespeare's major plays
• Cervantes, "Don Quixote"
• Daniel Defoe, "Robinson Crusoe"
• Jonathan Swift, "Gulliver's Travels"
• The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson
• Any substantial collection of the world's major folktales
• Jane Austen, "Pride and Prejudice"
• Lewis Carroll, "Alice in Wonderland"
• Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"
Source: Book by Book by Michael Dirda