“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
—Jorge Luis Borges
I had the distinct pleasure recently of being on a panel at the Washington Writers Conference with Tom Shroder—author, ghostwriter, journalist, and long-time editor of the Washington Post Magazine—and Michael Dirda, even longer-time book critic at the Washington Post and elsewhere. We were discussing the fuzzy lines that separate memoir, family history, and fiction.
As part of preparing for the panel, I read two of Michael’s several books: his most recent, Browsings, and his memoir of the first third of his life through college, An Open Book.
One thing that both books drove home for me is what a sweeping diversity of books Dirda reads and loves. You will not find a more erudite critic of the highest of high-brow literature, and yet he is an unapologetic fan of sci-fi, horror, and other sub-genres of pulp fiction. He is a walking object lesson in the value of having wide, all-embracing tastes in reading.
An Open Book ripples out from a central image of toddler Michael crawling into his mother’s lap as she sat on the floor each night to read to him, and expands in concentric circles from home to neighborhood to city and beyond. What I loved most about the memoir was how closely he was able to map favorite, memorable books to when he discovered them, practically year by year, and describe what they meant to him then and now, as though he had just read them. In some cases, he had just read them, because not only is he a prolific reader, he’s a prolific re-reader.
For someone like me, who thinks she reads a lot, attempting to comprehend the breadth of Dirda’s lifetime of reading is humbling. (As I said during our panel session, “I read Michael Dirda when I have delusions of adequacy, and that snaps me right out of it.”) At the end of the book, he includes two lists of the “major” books he’d read by age sixteen and by the end of high school—meaning not including the dime-store stuff—many of which I still have never read.
But reviewing those lists did prompt me to think about the books that forged my love of reading. Those early ones were T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, A. J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (and, yes, I fell in love with the wildly politically incorrect Mr. Rochester), Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. I loved Greek mythology, and I’m pretty certain that I had read The Illiad and The Odyssey by early high school. Memorizing poetry was a favorite pastime, and I remember reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” for my sixth grade class. (They didn’t appreciate that nearly as much as when I recited the well-known limerick about the pelican, after which the teacher told me to sit down. I said, “But I’m not done,” and she replied, “Oh, yes, you are.”)
Dirda recounts how it bothered his hard-working, mechanically inclined father that his one son was such a bookworm. These days we tend to worry that kids aren’t reading enough, given all the electronic competition and our decreasing attention spans. Yet I just spent all of today at the magnificent Gaithersburg Book Festival, where each year the children’s authors are mobbed. Watching that recurring scene—children clutching books in their arms, dancing a little in line as their excitement threatens to spew like over-carbonated soda—always makes me hopeful that we continue to raise generations of avid readers.
I’m with them. Reading both An Open Book and Browsings made me eager to double-down on my reading intake, though with a full-time job and lots of other commitments, it’s hard to see where it fits in. I know I’ll never catch up to Michael Dirda’s reading accomplishments, but I can certainly give them a run for the money.
A friend of mine once observed of me, sadly, that she worries that I’ll end up as a hermit, shut into my house and surrounded by nothing but books. I’m sure I got a dreamy look about me as I sighed and said, “And that’s how I’ll know I’m in heaven.”