AUGUST 22, 2015
“WHY IS IT that I so seldom want to read what everyone else wants to read?” Michael Dirda asks in “Armchair Adventures,” the third essay of his new release Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. “Nowadays I gravitate increasingly to older books and particularly to tales of romance and derring-do from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” What Dirda likes to find on the steel shelves of his beloved secondhand bookstores is lots of pre-World War II fiction, “most of it looking just slightly better than shabby.”
“Such stories,” he states, “are as important to our imaginations as the more canonical classics,” and his passion for the cozy narratives of swashbucklers, murder-mysteries, and early speculative and fantasy fiction reminds me of the Scottish phrase coorie doon, which describes the act of curling up or snuggling. If, as he argues, our books are a personal reflection of who we want to be and what we desire, then Dirda desires nothing more than to coorie doon with Kidnapped, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Time Machine, King Solomon’s Mines, The Man Who Was Thursday, Kim, and The Thirty-Nine Steps — or, preferably, a slightly-better-than-shabby first edition of a book along these lines that no one has ever heard of.
In his introduction to Browsings, Dirda describes its 52 short essays as “the meandering reflections of a literary sybarite.” Ranging in length from 600 to around 2000 words, the essays originally appeared as an online column every Friday between February 2012 and February 2013 at the homepage of The American Scholar. Though the essays are available online, it is nice to have them bound together in the comforting pages of a “real” book.
Born in Lorain, Ohio, Dirda has long lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, near Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Oberlin College, and received his PhD in comparative literature from Cornell University. A weekly columnist for The Washington Post, he also contributes regularly to The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and many other scholarly and popular periodicals. He received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1993, and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2012 for his scholarly work On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling. In addition to On Conan Doyle, Dirda has published four prior essay collections: Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments (2000), Bound to Please (2004), Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life (2006), Classics for Pleasure (2007) — and a memoir, An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland (2003).
Dirda is one of the best known and best loved critics working in the United States today and his popularity is due in no small part to his lack of pretentiousness with regard to the literary canon. “Fiction is a house with many stately mansions but also one in which it is wise, at least sometimes, to swing from the chandeliers,” he believes, because “we read for aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual excitement.” Indeed, in Browsings he shies away from defining himself as a critic at all (denying he has the requisite analytical mind), and states his first objective is to entertain. “I’m a bookman,” he writes, “an appreciator, a cheerleader for the old, the neglected, the marginalized, and the forgotten. On sunny days I may call myself a literary journalist.”
Much in Browsings might endear Dirda to readers (it certainly endeared him to me): like his passion for Jussi Björling and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and the good old days when music was vinyl and came in a box accompanied by librettos and explanatory notes; like those tchotchkes accumulating near his desk, the literary-themed matchsticks, action figures of Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe, the Bettie Page tumbler, souvenir pencils, and photo of Louise Brooks; like his descent into sartorial obsession after buying six Charvet shirts in a thrift store, “the kind of shirts that Gatsby would keep in his closet to impress Daisy Buchanan,” and his addiction to British period television, such as Agatha Christie adaptations, due to its settings and clothes. As a former buyer in the fashion industry, I empathized with his compulsion to never repeat an outfit when teaching a class — both of us suffer from having chosen a profession that can be performed in pajamas.
He yearns for a country house library — don’t we all? — and his rampant Anglophilia is only partially sated by Burberry raincoats and daydreams of club chairs and plaid. “Even now I retain the bright enthusiasms and the fresh, unspoiled mental outlook of a slightly inebriated undergraduate,” he writes, quoting P.G. Wodehouse, and sharing details of his memberships of a prodigious number of prestigious clubs and societies — including The Baker Street Irregulars (the 80-year-old literary organization honoring Sherlock Holmes), Eta Sigma Phi (an organization for classics graduates), the North American Jules Verne Society, The Ghost Story Society, The Washington D.C. Panthans (devoted to Edgar Rice Burroughs), the Lewis Carroll Society, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (is this even a Thing? Yes, it is a very elite, invitation-only Thing), and the superbly named Washington D.C. Chapter of the Wodehouse Society, Capital! Capital! Such socializing, he contends, is necessary to get a bookish fellow out of the house now and then, don’t you know, but I suspect it also provides opportunities to circulate his wardrobe. These boyish enthusiasms might make one want to dress up in steampunk and coorie doon with Dirda and watch Penny Dreadful, or — equally — cause him to slither in one’s estimation from endearing to cliquishly obnoxious.
It is his book fetish, though, that provides the bulk of the content of the essays. “Condition, condition, condition” may be the mantra of the serious collector, but Dirda admits to allowing quantity to trump quality, and his frequent attendance at literary conferences and events such as Readercon, allows him to indulge his passion in secondhand stores and thrift shops all across America.
He loves that “inexplicable feeling of buoyant youthfulness that overtakes me as I wander among the tables and shelves,” looking only for “these editions that possess that distinctive aura of the original, a glamour that subsequent reissues can never recapture.” After humphing his treasures home to a house he describes as shambolic, and that must be filled with — besieged by — thousands of books, he feels “grotty and tired and very happy.” Each purchase, he fantasizes, will one day appear in his work because “if I don’t write about a book in a review or essay, then I haven’t actually read it.” To Dirda, writing about a book actualizes the reading of it.
“Certain names are holy even now” — names such as Green Lantern, The Flash, Jules Verne, The Hardy Boys, Fu Manchu, H.P. Lovecraft, and Lord Dunsany, because Dirda first met them as a boy. He fell in love with poetry through hearing Vincent Price recite Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” and discovered Ray Bradbury, Jack Finney, O. Henry, W. Somerset Maugham, Katherine Mansfield, and many others, through anthologies, a form he rarely reads these days, preferring to immerse himself in the work of a single author. In college he was smitten by Proust and the Icelandic sagas, before slipping under the spell of more scholarly or biographical works, like Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo, Rousseau’s Confessions, and Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce.
He shares, blithely, some of the canon he has yet to read: for example, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James — and the pain I felt on learning this is not halved by having now shared it with you — though he compensates by compiling an almost perfect list of gift suggestions in “Books for the Holidays,” including Nights at the Circus, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Master and Margarita, Gaudy Night, and The Leopard.
Dirda swerves directly into politics in only three essays of the 52. After a hike ruined by poor administration, he remarks in “Rocky Mountain Low,” that “those in power, whether it be corporate or governmental, have grown increasingly disconnected, increasingly callous in their treatment and exploitation of ordinary Americans,” while in “Aurora” he laments dire gun control laws, and in “Money” he laments rampant inequality. But such forays over cultural landmines are rare, which explains, partly, his broad appeal, but also strips his work of the flint that might spark a reader response stronger than a melancholy, empathic nod. Although Dirda admires the blunt confidence of critics like Christopher Hitchens or Gore Vidal or Roger Kimball, whom he terms “the literary controversialists of our time,” he admits he could never be one of them because he feels that there is always room for doubt. Unlike Auden, he fears time and good writing would not pardon him for expressing opinions lacking nuance.
Nevertheless, when Dirda allows himself to interject more personal sentiment into Browsings, the writing soars — indeed, he knows how to write wonderfully (to use his favorite qualifier) well. In “Then and Now,” he describes visiting his aging mother in Ohio, and remembering his father’s exhortation to “live fast,” but he reflects, in a comingled tone of pride and regret, that “in fact, I’ve lived slow, dithered and dallied, taken my own sweet time, and done pretty much what I’ve repeatedly done since my mother first taught me to read so long ago: Found a quiet spot and opened a book.” In “Dirty Pictures,” he shares his fondness for etchings and prints of factories and steel mills, as they remind him of the industrial landscapes of his youth. “Sometimes I feel ashamed at how far I’ve fallen short of the omnicompetence of the hard, quiet men I grew up with,” he confesses, and admits choosing to live in Silver Spring because it felt real, felt like the kind of place one could get some welding done. Such delicate reminiscences may fill his memoir, An Open Book (I’m sorry to admit I haven’t read it); therefore, he may have deemed them inappropriate for his weekly book column, but I wished there had been more.
The mind-boggling breadth and depth of Dirda’s scholarship is never in question — he has won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism after all — and it is illustrated by an Afterword in Browsings that lists the other freelance journalism he undertook during his year as a columnist for The American Scholar, underscoring his reputation as a literary polymath. Nevertheless, although many of his recommendations piqued my interest (including The Murder League by Robert L. Fish, who writes send-ups of Sherlock Holmes; Dream Days, an early story collection by Kenneth Grahame; The Servant by Robin Maugham; and the oeuvre of Katherine MacLean), his erudition is not really the main event here, and I was left wondering: who is this particular book for? Writers enter dangerous territory if they allow themselves to fret over readership — a writer’s job is to do the work, not judge the work, or so I’ve often been told — but this feels like a question a reviewer should ask.
But given that I wear the hats of both writer and critic, I am torn. On the one hand, I could say, if you like this kind of thing — elegantly written musings about calligraphy, writer’s block, genre conferences, the books on a given critic’s nightstand, with the odd personal reminiscence thrown in — then Browsings is kind of thing you’ll like. On the other hand…
In “Out of Print,” an essay about the challenges Dirda faces in finding inspiring freelance opportunities, he explains: “So given 1) this liking for the obscure and 2) my desire to write about what I’ve read, you may 3) glimpse my problem.” And I do. I see his problem, and this book — partially — epitomizes it, though it also hints at a solution. Because 1) if you are a Dirda fan, you may have already followed his postings in The American Scholar and therefore may not need this collection, but 2) if you have yet to discover Dirda and/or are not fond of the cozy pleasures of pre-World War II fiction, of what he terms his “weird old stuff,” then you might find little here to engage you, because 3) due to their uncontroversial tone, these essays are more akin to diary entries, and are prone to repetition — after all most of us live repetitious lives — and lack the sassy, contemporary bite of, say, The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby’s collection of essays about the reading life taken from his monthly column in The Believer magazine, and 4) some are essentially book lists — albeit high quality and intriguing — and don’t contain anything beyond a few sentences about the many books referenced; at least, they don’t engage in the kind of in-depth conversation with a text at which Dirda excels, as exemplified in his collection Classics For Pleasure, and that might convince a reader to hunt them down.
According to Dirda, a writer’s greatest challenge is tone — “I like a piece to sound as if it were dashed off in fifteen minutes” — and one of the reasons Dirda is so admired is because he wears his scholarship lightly. Here, though, he wears it too lightly, as if he fears alienating his readership. Great writing is about more than having a wonderful voice; it’s also about the song. Yes, we want to be entertained by a literary sybarite but, even when being entertained, we want to be challenged by his meandering reflections, and remember them, and feel their effect, for more than 15 minutes. Furthermore, Dirda’s tendency to simplify or over-explain can cause his tone, now and then — unintentionally, I’m sure — to slip from endearing to patronizing. “Don’t read more than two or three of the pieces at one sitting,” he instructs (oops, sorry, I did), and “Please bear in mind that these are light essays.” For a critic of his stature, this advice implies either a touching lack of ego or a condescending lack of trust, and may also suggest that he, himself, fears the essays might not have sufficient heft to survive their transfer from the evanescent medium of the internet column to the permanency of ink on paper and that we, the readers, might be expecting more from them. It’s not our fault if we are. After all, during his career, he has set his bar pretty high. Nevertheless, no reader likes to be told how to feel about a book.
But, onward! Doggedness (according to Dirda, his most salient talent) will carry the day. At several times during Browsings, he shares his desire to write a critical survey of popular fiction during his favorite literary period — from the late 19th to early 20th century — and perhaps he needed to produce these weekly columns in The American Scholar in order to spur this project forward — to hone his own intent. Given that the gender and racial politics of such books (which I assume will include novels by writers such as G. K. Chesterton, H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dashiell Hammett, John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne, and Agatha Christie) will naturally reflect the culture of their time, this survey should provide lots of flint to spark feisty (to use one of Dirda’s least-favorite adjectives) debate among critics and scholars, and will hopefully encourage small presses to reprint hidden gems.
At the end of Browsings, Dirda confirms he has a publisher for his critical survey, which he has titled The Great Age of Storytelling, and that it should appear in 2016. The Great Age of Storytelling: now that sounds like a book with which I will want to coorie doon.