BROWSINGS: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. By Michael Dirda. Pegasus. 336 pages. $24.95.
“I cannot sleep,” lamented Jorge Luis Borges, “unless I am surrounded by books.”
Michael Dirda understands. The affable author and literary journalist, a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post, is truly content only when in the embrace of books, enveloped at home or in the many used book stores he trawls for treasures.
“Browsings,” which collects a year’s worth of his best writing for The American Scholar, is as much about a passion for collecting and living with books, about chance discoveries and recoveries of the forgotten, as it is about the inestimable pleasures of reading.
These conversational essays gleam with Dirda’s enthusiasms, his belief that we read for aesthetic, emotional and intellectual excitement, not simply to be entertained. That one may possess a work of art for a pittance is, for him, a source of endless astonishment.
Not surprisingly, Dirda greatly prefers the companionship of actual books as opposed to digital texts, for bookshelves that are filled are not mere decorative facade but emblems of who one is. Thus, he exhorts us to read with abandon, to delve beyond the familiar and the best-seller lists.
Including paeans to such literary scholars as Jacques Barzun, M.H. Abrams, Daniel Aaron and E.F. Bleiler, among others, the Pulitzer Prize winner’s antiquarian penchants extend not only to Victorian and Edwardian popular fiction but to quoting other authors in illustrative fashion.
Dirda may be as well read as anyone alive (though he would doubtless demur), and unlike many critics does not dismiss fantasy and science fiction, nor mysteries and swashbucklers, as trivialities not worth one’s time. Rather, he celebrates books of all kinds from all eras, with a particular bent toward the period 1865-1935, which he calls the great age of storytelling.
Still, “Browsings” fails to acknowledge that we do not all read voluminously and write for a living, and that the average discerning, intelligent reader, faced by such dizzying multitudes of books, is at pains to be selective. We all have our guilty pleasures, but some things — even whole genres — really aren’t worth a serious reader’s attention.
One might argue that Dirda can be a little too immersed in books at the expense of other aspects of his life, and he reaches the same conclusion from time to time while fretting he may more dilettante than litterateur (not so).
His essays are unfailingly informative, often amusing, yet also harbor touching asides on the plight of the aging artist and the spectre of diminishing powers. More than anything, these essays are personal, and remind us that books represent the one true time machine, through which writers can talk to readers directly, intimately, across the ages.
Reviewer Bill Thompson is the author of “Art and Craft: Thirty Years on the Literary Beat.”