Michael Dirda whose latest collection of reflections on literary journalism and book collecting, Browsings, is being published this August by Pegasus Books, would never trek to New York from his native Silver Spring, Md with only one appointment on his literary dance card. Dirda is in town for the annual gathering of the Baker Street Irregulars, the famous Sherlock Holmes literary society formed in the 1930s. And the day before he lunched at the Century Club on West 43rd Street with Andre Bernard, the former editor at Harcourt who brought out Dirda’s book Classics for Pleasure in 2007.
“Of course,” Dirda says with a chuckle, “I’ve been spending more hours than I should poking around the Strand, Argosy Bookshop, and the Housing Works Café and Bookstore in Soho. I can’t even pass a book table on Sixth Avenue without pausing to check the offerings. Once a street dealer in Brooklyn sold me a fine copy of Bitten by the Tarantula by Julian Maclaren-Ross, one of the legendary figures of London’s literary bohemia in the 1940s and ’50s, for $3.00. To quote Larry McMurtry: ‘Anything can be anywhere.’”
Dirda’s litany of his book-hunting exploits and the literary reference that caps it sound like a lost chapter from Browsings. In fact, it parallels “Ending Up,” the book’s hilarious penultimate essay, in which Dirda describes how, following a lunch in Washington, D.C., with the poet and translator A.M. Justor, he spent the rest of the day prowling through local used bookstores with the giddy abandon of a sailor on a spree. Each bookstore visit ends with him observing, “At which point, I really should have gotten in my car and driven home”—before he ventures on to yet another book haven. This thumbnail sketch of Dirda’s insatiable book addiction is a funny and fitting finale to his book’s portrait of the artist as a freelance literary journalist.
Browsings is a collection of what Dirda calls “light essays” that he contributed weekly to the home page of The American Scholar between 2012 and 2013. Though they span only a year, they are the culmination of the more than 50 years Dirda has enjoyed as a reader and reviewer of books. In them, he relates books and reading to a wide variety of life experiences, literary and otherwise. “I simply scribbled about whatever I was thinking or doing that week,” he says. “So in Browsings, you’ll find me writing about literary pets, Dover Books, the year I lived in Marseille, science fiction conventions, favorite words, thrift-store finds, cursive handwriting, Anglophilia, favorite book titles, my alma mater Oberlin College, the painter George Bellows, and the books that I keep on my nightstand. There are also several rants about different aspects of modern life.”
Dirda’s fondness for books began early in life, in fact, “ever since my mother first showed me an illustrated Golden Book with a cute little bunny on the cover. Gosh, it was cute! And the little duckling on the cover of the next night’s book even cuter! And then there was that pokey little puppy! Could life ever get more exiting?”
By age 10, as he writes in his 2003 memoir, An Open Book, he was reading voraciously all the publications you would expect to pique the interest of a young boy: “Uncle Scrooge and Superman comics, Hardy Boys mysteries, Tarzan adventures, Fu Manchu thrillers, Jules Verne, Rider Haggard, and Robert A. Heinlein.” Shortly thereafter, Dirda’s lifelong interest in the work of Arthur Conan Doyle kicked off following an adolescent encounter with The Hound of the Baskervilles, an experience he recounts with great affection in On Conan Doyle (2012). That book won him an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, one of several prestigious literary honors that he’s earned over the years.
By his college years, Dirda’s voracious reading had turned omnivorous and he earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Cornell University. He completed his dissertation in Washington, D.C., having followed his girlfriend (now wife), Marian, there when she landed a job caring for archival treasures at the Library of Congress. Looking for ways to make a living in our nation’s capitol, Dirda began submitting book reviews to The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Washington Post Book World. He so impressed the latter with his reviewing acumen that they offered him a job as assistant editor in 1978. In 1993, while on staff, Dirda won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He left the Post after 25 years to become a freelance book reviewer, essayist, and feature writer, but he continues to contribute a weekly column on books to the newspaper.
Dirda has no regrets about his detour from academia into the work he’s known for today. “This turned out to be the ideal career for me,” he says. “As a literary journalist, I’m a teacher by other means, urging people to look beyond the bestseller lists, to read books in translation or older classics, to try, at least occasionally, innovative fiction or new poetry. My gift, if that’s not too grandiose a term, is one for describing novels, biographies, and works of history in such a way that people want to read them. I’m an appreciator. I love all kinds of books and I want others to love them, too.”
Dirda expresses his passion for all kinds of books in terms of touchstones for his personal identity. “Obviously, my books are in part a reflection of who I am and who I aspire to be. Books can be a source of solace, but I see them mainly as a source of pleasure, personal as well as esthetic. I’m nothing if not a literary hedonist. In a way, the books I choose to read and write about make up a covert autobiography: Through them I explore myself. With them I carry on a conversation about ideas and art and life.”
In Browsings, Dirda describes himself as a “bookman, a distinctly old-fashioned term for a certain kind of literary journalist. Newspaper and magazine columnists like Vincent Starrett, Clifton Fadiman, and Cyril Connolly were middlemen between literature and the ordinary reading public. They didn’t write to impress, they wrote to express enthusiasm. Their tone was intimate, easy-going, conversational. They shared their pleasure in new books, rediscovered forgotten authors, and made you want to read what they wrote about.”
What’s more, bookmen were very eclectic in their tastes. One of the most refreshing aspects of Dirda’s Browsings essays is the mix of references to literary classics and popular genre fiction, sometimes in the same essay and occasionally in the same paragraph. Dirda chides those who would treat these books as the proverbial oil and water of the literary spectrum. “Critics who dismiss genre fiction out of hand simply don’t know what they’re dismissing,” he says. “In the early 1980s I wrote a piece for The Nation called ‘The Genre Ghetto,’ in which I argued that the rising generation of writers would turn to the marginalized literary forms of fantasy, the crime novel, and the western for models, rejecting the middle-class realism then prevalent in American letters. Some of what I predicted has certainly come to pass. Just think of the work of admired and prize-winning authors such as Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Lethem, George Pelecanos, George R.R. Martin, and many others.”
Dirda’s next book project will, in fact, be a big book that he’s been calling The Great Age of Storytelling, which will focus on popular fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But before he leaves New York, Dirda will present two papers to the Baker Street Irregulars, one on the Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear in this, its centennial year, then at work back in his suburban Washington home.
And of course, he’ll be hitting a few more used bookstores.
Stefan Dziemianowicz has edited more than 30 anthologies of horror, fantasy, and science fiction; he reviews regularly for Locus and Publishers Weekly.