Saturday, December 18, 2004


New Criterion has a nice review of Michael Dirda's collection of book reviews. Dirda occupies the last page of the Washington Post Book World each Sunday. He's an excellent critic, though I've learned to be cautious about his enthusiasms. I recall once plunging into some obscure, long out-of-print sci fi pulp that he raved about and turning quickly away from the unhinged wildness of it. This isn't much of a defect; there are few critics who trouble themselves to mention works past, particularly ones that can now only be found in second hand stores and, maybe, humongous research libraries.

Here's the review of the reviewer:
Summer reading
by Stefan Beck


Michael Dirda has reviewed books for The Washington Post Book World since 1978. Bound to Please represents, by Dirda’s account, 20 percent of his output. This is an impressive amount of writing; it is the result of a downright alarming amount of reading. (When did he eat, sleep, or bathe?) He was spurred not by penury and deadlines but by his love of words. His first review, two hundred words on John Gardner’s In the Suicide Mountains, took him a full day to write. “No prose since that on Trajan’s column,” he writes, “has been so carefully chiseled.”

Dirda is a great guide, a Virgil leading both novice and experienced readers on a tour of his own Reader’s Paradise. His collection, promising to be a “literary education,” moves effortlessly from age to age, style to style, genius to genius. Sections like “Romantic Dreamers,” “Visionaries and Moralists,” “Lovers, Poets, and Madmen,” and “Writers of Our Time” organize this delightful embarrassment of riches.

Dirda seizes upon one of the great rewards of reading: the odd scene or detail that lodges itself unshakably in the reader’s imagination.

This is proof of Dirda’s discipline, dedication, and craftsmanship. Few reviewers would take in so much to produce such short pieces. For Dirda, it’s business as usual: he reads to discover, to add to the critical tools at his command. And anyone who raises a skeptical eyebrow at that abridgment of Proust should be advised: “During that gray and rainy fall of [Dirda’s] junior year in college, [he] read Proust steadily for five, six, eight hours a day.” It seems Dirda has heeded Balzac’s dictum—noted in the introduction to the section titled “Professionals at Work”—that “[c]onstant work is the law of art as it is of life.”

It is a thorough and beautifully written document of the great pleasure reading can bring. So it makes one want to read, and to read a great variety of things—literature, history, poetry, commentary, and on and on. This encouragement by example should be welcomed by both new and veteran page-turners.

Stefan Beck is the assistant editor at The New Criterion.

From The New Criterion Vol. 23, No. 23, December 2004
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