Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments – Michael Dirda (2000)


Having just finished up Michael Dirda’s book of essays about books, I feel quite bereft for several reasons, really. One is that no matter how hard I try, I will not reach his level of literary achievements – He seems to have a familiarity with every title out there, no matter how far back you go. Second – he writes extremely well about what he reads (without a trace of boasting about the sheer numbers), and three, he’s been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and finally, four, he seems to be a nice all-around guy.

In case you’re not up on who Dirda is, he is the Washington Post’s Senior Book Critic and he has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Cornell University.  He’s also incredibly well read, and I’ve dipped into his erudite blog (now defunct), but you can see more of his writing via The American Scholar’s Browsing column. I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve read by him so far. I own three of his books (Readings (2000), Bound to Please (2005), and Book by Book (2005)) but have only read this title so far. (Read quite a few of his columns though.) However, he definitely meets the self-determined criteria of one of my famed literary dinner party guests. (Guests so far include Nick Hornby, Robert Lacey and Dirda. Hmm. I clearly need to balance up the table a bit in terms of gender and POC… I’ll work on that.)

Basically, this book is a collection of essays and columns from his writing at the Washington Post, and in the same vein as Nick Hornby (except a little more elevated, one might say). Hornby’s easier to read and pretty funny, whilst Dirda is much more scholarly and serious. Both are good in different ways – just depends what you’re in the mood for, really. Just be prepared to add oodles of titles to your TBR list.

So this collection covers a wide range of topics, from the challenge of getting his three young boys to read more to the writings of Sophocles to the book-buying adventures in which he engages every now and then. As a bookie person, I really enjoyed each column but must be candid and admit that there were quite a few titles of which I had never heard. (Boy – he seems to have read everything and remembers what he read as well!)

I particularly liked his quote about traveling:

“A good rule of thumb is: Pack twice as many books as changes of underwear.”

Sounds rather sensible to me.

So – if you like books about books, or reading about books, and enjoy adding five million titles to your TBR, then I highly recommend Dirda’s columns. I really enjoyed this read, and now moving the other two titles up the pile a bit. (Want to spread them out a bit so I can look forward to them. Plus he has a new title coming out in 2015. Joy.)


The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction – Alan Jacobs (2011)

I initially picked up this little gold mine with some reluctance as I had read some differing reviews of it across the web, a lot of which didn’t really like it. However, I was very happy to find that I was one who did like it, and more than that – loved it.

Jacobs has been criticized in some reviews as being too snobby, particularly admitting that if someone sends him an email asking him for a list of books to read, he won’t reply. Without knowing him (or his writing, rather), I had decided that he was a bit rude to do that, but now that I have completed his short book (more of essays than anything), I can agree with him.

Jacobs is an English professor and as such, has made his life about reading, books and the like. He is not shy about voicing his opinion about other authors and their various philosophies on “how to read” books such as the classics. Jacobs firmly takes some of these ideas to task, and advocates returning to reading on a Whim (with a capital “W”). It’s a lovely thought, I think, and reminded me that I can be such a task master with my own reading. Sometimes, I feel as though I should read all the classics all the time, and I can be guilty of mentally having a list of titles that I feel that I should read. (Or…?)

He has reminded me of the fun it is to follow your interests from one book to another as they lead down a road into a new subject or topic or issue…

Jacobs’ approach is much more relaxed: “Read what gives you delight…and do so without shame!” I loved this as it completely removes the pressure that I sometimes inexplicably put on myself to read the stuff that’s good for me (broccoli books) – books that aren’t that fun to read but are supposed to be classic.

So this was a great reminder that I don’t have to read stuff I don’t want to. I am not in school any more (and haven’t been for some time), so why do I subject myself to some of the books? Perhaps I need to adopt what Jacobs’ advocates:  “If I set a book aside today, I am not thereby forbidding myself to return to it later – nor am I promising to do so…”. (How lovely is that thought.)

Despite the common view that reading is in a decline, Jacobs believes that it is actually not – it might not be increasing, but it’s not declining. Case in point: E-readers. He loves his because it has few distractions, and has enabled him to reclaim that feeling of “being lost in a book” that he (and I) had as children. Reading teaches you to:

 “sit still for long periods and confront time head-on. The dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with life’s lesser woes, and simply bask in the everlasting present.”  (Excerpt from “Ruined by Reading” by Lynn Sharon Shwartz.)

Not *entirely* sure that that bit isn’t a little too over-the-top, but I agree with its general sentiments of reading a good book can take you elsewhere.

All of my pressure is self-imposed and mostly ridiculous, and this attitude is both historically and geographically widely spread. One of the chapters in the book focused on a twelfth century Abbot called Hugh, who lived at St. Victor in Paris. He wrote a sort of handbook for his fellow monks to help them with their reading, and his advice holds true today. Jacobs says that the Latin word studio (meaning study) has an early definition (prior to 1697) of “affection, friendliness, pleasure or interest in something” — a student is not just attentive to the subject, but even friendly or affectionate towards it (the idea that there are valuable contents to enrich your life within your subject).

What an absolutely wonderful way of looking at whatever you like to learn about (study): photography, writing, reading… However, and this is another point that Jacobs emphasizes, it’s important to slow down and concentrate on the matter at hand. Don’t just read something to cross it off the list (or in my particular case, add it to an Excel file…). As he writes, one should read and congitatio (cogitate on the text) and then also meditatio (incorporate the text into one’s own life). If you frequently go back and review previous paragraphs to make sure you have the point, then you are doing that.

Overall, a short but deep meditation (meditatio!) on reading and the people who do it. Loved it.