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“Let’s go over to the entrance, pretend we walked in together.”
November 14, 2012 5:19 AM   Subscribe

Book Shopping with the Best-Read Man in America. An afternoon in a used bookstore with Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize winning book critic and author.
posted by aldurtregi (38 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
Everything published in the Paris Review reads as a parody of the Paris Review. But I like Michael Dirda, not having read much of him, and his broad tastes serve as a model.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:26 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was skeptical until I saw he'd inspired someone to read Three Men in a Boat. AND George and Martha? OMG.
posted by DU at 5:28 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really like Dirda. He's the best critic writing for the Washington Post, and every word he writes shames that piece of shit Jonathon Yardley, who is like a big piece of shit who hates good writing.
posted by OmieWise at 5:29 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


And both Sayers and Christie! And spaceships on the cover!
posted by DU at 5:34 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dirda, I would have dinner with you, even though this writer couldn't.
posted by Think_Long at 5:36 AM on November 14, 2012


So this is how a man acquires 10,000-odd books, more than he could ever display or read. It’s a combination of maniacal persistence and utter nostalgic whimsy. You have to be willing to search high and low for a potential beauty, but most of the time you’ll take a Book Club hardcover of a book you don’t like if it reminds you of something from your past.

Hands up if you recognise that behaviour.

Michael Dirda is clearly a man of taste, as about twothirds of the books he recommended or bought in this article are on my shelves as well.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:40 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


How big a book nerd do you have to be to get the vicarious thrill I got from reading an article about browsing a used bookstore?
posted by steef at 5:43 AM on November 14, 2012 [25 favorites]


This is great fun, Dirda sounds like a stand-up (and bend down for the sweet strawberries) type. He likes Joseph Mitchell (how could one not?).

And this, this will be my new tossaway line: “The Schlegel and Tieck translations are classics in themselves.”
posted by chavenet at 5:49 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


10,000-odd books, more than he could ever display or read

I like a challenge. Say an average of two a week, call it 100 a year, so 100 years of reading. I started when I was five, say, and although my pace was slow the books back then were pretty short so around seven I could probably do a dozen in one day if we went to the library... I might need to pick up the pace a bit in middle age and cut down on the Tolstoy and the DFW, but then again I might live to 110 or more... I reckon it's absolutely doable.
posted by Segundus at 5:54 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Segundus: "I like a challenge. Say an average of two a week, call it 100 a year, so 100 years of reading ... I reckon it's absolutely doable."

If we're allowed to count novel-length fanfiction I'm pretty sure I could swing it.
posted by bettafish at 6:11 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Aw, what a fine, fun piece of writing. Thanks, aldurtregi. Up in the Old Hotel and Riddley Walker just moved up the same list John Lingan apparently has.

A clothbound, jacketless copy of The Private Diaries of Stendhal caught his eye and he began to flip through. Then he stuffed it back on the shelf dismissively and pointed out the librarian chickenscratch added to the spine in white marker. “You never want to have a book that ugly,” he explained.

See? Told you so.

“I check every time for Rick Brant’s ‘Electronic Adventure’ series and usually get nothing. Also anything Tom Swift. I love that stuff. Boy heroes.”

What a sweetheart. We still talk about the time Dirda came into our store and told us how much he liked it, and still can't imagine enjoying the compliment more if it came from anyone else.
posted by mediareport at 6:18 AM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I haven't read a lot of his reviews, but I remember really liking his review of pTerry's Night Watch. Can't seem to find it online at the moment though.

If we're allowed to count novel-length fanfiction I'm pretty sure I could swing it.

A friend linked me to a Work In Progress fic that was at 1.5 million words. Eat your heart out, Proust!
posted by kmz at 6:19 AM on November 14, 2012


I love my e-reader, and I am reading much more now that I have moved to one. Articles like this and the sight of my increasingly neglected floor-to-ceiling bookshelves make me very sad, though.

I feel like such a traitor.
posted by joelhunt at 6:20 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


His blog
posted by BWA at 6:24 AM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I immediately identified with Dirda when I read this piece yesterday because I hunt for books in much the same way, excepting that I don't live in DC, don't own 10,000 books (more in the range of 1000-1500, me, though it's possible that I've bought closer to 10), and I lack his fondness for science-fiction (science-fiction and baseball: two things I like the idea of and wish I liked more, but don't).

every word he writes shames that piece of shit Jonathon Yardley

I felt this way about Yardley for years, but I forgave him a lot for his love of A Fan's Notes.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:26 AM on November 14, 2012


Btw, if you're looking to continue your voyage over the ocean that is Michael Dirda's brainwaves, his Classics for Pleasure is a nice bay to set sail from. It's a collection of very short and powerful essays about TOO MANY GODDAMN FUCKING AWESOME BOO--er, I mean, about wonderful lesser-known gems of literature:

In this casually brilliant collection of great book recommendations, Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic for the Washington Post Book World, discusses titles ranging from well-known favorites such as Sherlock Holmes and Beowulf to more obscure writers such as Jaroslav Hasek and John Masefield. Dirda is a charming and exceedingly well-read host, erudite without slipping into pretension. He is more generous and less canonical than Harold Bloom, to whose work Dirda owes a debt in style and substance. The book creates a pleasurable but somewhat maddening sensation in the committed reader, who will be tempted to read most of Dirda's selections based on his brief summations. The complete works of Christopher Marlowe are summed up in five eventful pages, and Dirda makes Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire sound so essential over the course of three pages that one forgets it would take the better part of a year to actually read. Dirda's greatest accomplishment, however, is rescuing many formerly illustrious masters from the dustbin of our culture's pitifully short memory: James Agee, G.K. Chesterton and Ernst Junger are just three who benefit from their inclusion in this indispensable volume.
posted by mediareport at 6:29 AM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


For anyone who hasn't read Dirda I would highly recommend his book reviews. I see him and the late Guy Davenport as setting the standard for book reviewing in the late 20th and early 21st century. The difference being that they knead together history, trivia and critical ideas to form the review rather than just laying out the story in bullet form.

Browsing a good used bookstore is more relaxing than meditation.
posted by incandissonance at 6:30 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I felt this way about Yardley for years, but I forgave him a lot for his love of A Fan's Notes.

Yes, well, stopped clocks...etc. His grip on the Book Review (when we had a book review) was stultifying, and his ongoing series, called, I think, Books by Manly Men I Have Loved So Much I Must Read Them Again Because They Are By Manly Men, is a blight upon the Post each week. But perhaps I exaggerate.
posted by OmieWise at 6:36 AM on November 14, 2012


So this is how a man acquires 10,000-odd books, more than he could ever display or read. It’s a combination of maniacal persistence and utter nostalgic whimsy. You have to be willing to search high and low for a potential beauty, but most of the time you’ll take a Book Club hardcover of a book you don’t like if it reminds you of something from your past.

I have no idea how many books I have, although I'm sure it's far less than 10,000. But this sounds exactly like me.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:42 AM on November 14, 2012


Segundus: I reckon it's absolutely doable.

The beautiful thing about literature is that the total amount of stuff that's worth reading is functionally infinite. You may spend all your life reading and you'll never even read so much as one-thousandth of all the books worth reading. There is no way you'll ever run out of wonderful books to read. That's why literature is just the bestest drug, your source of highs never dries up, no matter how much you inject into your system.
posted by Kattullus at 6:47 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have no idea how many books I have

You need LibraryThing.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:56 AM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Say an average of two a week, call it 100 a year

Doable even with a 40 hour/week job and other hobbies; proof. Depends a lot on which books though.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:00 AM on November 14, 2012


You need LibraryThing.

I've tried starting on LibraryThing a couple of times and I always get like four hours into it and have entered ten titles because I insist upon finding the exact edition I own and then I get tired of it and give up.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:07 AM on November 14, 2012


Does Dirda still do a weekly live chat on the WaPo site? I always felt like those chats were like walking through a bookstore with him, with people peppering him with requests for suggestions and him providing them -- charmingly, enthusiastically and without hesitation. It's nice to know that actually walking through a bookstore with him is much the same experience.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:14 AM on November 14, 2012


I grew up reading Dirda in the Washington Post's Book World when it was published as a separate insert (ah, the good old days). I didn't fully appreciate what a great critic he was until later. This was a nice piece!
posted by chinston at 7:15 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tom Swift. My mom got me to unload our large (complete?) collection of old (first?) editions of Tom Swift books. I tried donating them to the library of the elementary school I attended, but they weren't interested. I don't remember where Tom went, but he did go somewhere. Should have put him in the attic.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:16 AM on November 14, 2012


Also I can't believe I grew up in Arlington not knowing about this place to buy secondhand books! I always thought Second Story Books was the ultimate destination in the Md. suburbs.
posted by chinston at 7:17 AM on November 14, 2012


Physical books. Sigh. I try hugging my Kindle but it shows me no love.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:41 AM on November 14, 2012


Also I can't believe I grew up in Arlington not knowing about this place to buy secondhand books! I always thought Second Story Books was the ultimate destination in the Md. suburbs.

It's a Friends of the Library store, that sells straight donations as well as ex libris books. It's a very mixed bag, since there is no buyer stocking the store, just whatever people bring in to donate. There is a lot of chaff. To tell you the truth, I used to go a lot, but I've basically stopped going because it's too easy to come out with crap. There is good turnover, though, and you can find some real gems. You can also find hardcovers from five years ago that the library bought a bunch of because they were popular, but they are in those horrible (and unremovable) plastic covers.
posted by OmieWise at 8:12 AM on November 14, 2012


That quote from Dirda (used as the post's title) “Let’s go over to the entrance, pretend we walked in together."...I almost can't stand how charming it is!

Wonderful post (and thread).
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:18 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dirda's occasional 'Freelance' columns for the TLS are equally delightful. Sadly they're not available on the TLS website, but a few can be found elsewhere, e.g. this one on his first book review, and this one on other reviewers he admires.

My one grumble about an otherwise charming piece: why does 'best-read' have to mean 'best-read in contemporary fiction', as if novels were the only kind of books that mattered?
posted by verstegan at 9:43 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Good point: Short stories also count.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:44 AM on November 14, 2012


shakespeherian: "I've tried starting on LibraryThing a couple of times and I always get like four hours into it and have entered ten titles because I insist upon finding the exact edition I own and then I get tired of it and give up"

One of the great things about Librarything is being able to use a barcode scanner to do all the catlogueing which takes all the hard work out of it. They have Cuecats (!) for sale, cheap, and there is also a free smart phone app. It has paid for itself many times over by saving me from buying duplicate books.
posted by tallus at 10:36 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


LibraryThing is the best thing for books ever made on the Internet. I rarely use Amazon anymore when researching books because LT does it so much better. Even the customer reviews are superior, and the book star-ratings actually are somewhat reliable (sometimes).

I actually like Yardley but don't know much about him. I emailed him once and he wrote back,, nice enough, about his review of Treasure Island. Too bad about the death of BookWorld but it wasn't around for a long time either, about a generation or two I think. Hard to compete with NYTBR which has a big budget and reputation (and The List).

I live in the area and there are a couple "secret" places to get great used books. The area is one of the wealthiest and best educated in the country - actually might be the best educated overall per capita. So there are tons of cheap used books in circulation, the detritus of civilization.
posted by stbalbach at 12:37 PM on November 14, 2012


the detritus compost of civilization, you mean.
posted by mediareport at 12:55 PM on November 14, 2012


Mr Dirda is a lovely guy and a fine critic, and I'd say that even if he hadn't been kind about my own stuff once or twice.
posted by Prince Lazy I at 1:45 PM on November 14, 2012


Classics For Pleasure is an excellent book. I really appreciate how Dirda is one of the few critics utterly divorced from contemporary, modish considerations. He consistently seeks out greatness, whatever genre or imprint it is in. His barely disguised scorn for much modern "literature" published (e.g Life Of Pi, many other Booker darlings) fills me with glee.

The goddamn problem with Dirda, though, is his joy for reading, ebullient prose, and incisive critical eye makes every book he writes about - if you're a somewhat eclectic reader, like myself - sound indispensable.

There's more than one entry in Classics For Pleasure that I've pursued with vigor only to begin reading and find myself thinking, "uh, this book is full of things I don't really like, why am I reading it.... DAMN YOU DIRDA".

The worst part is, the things he says about the books are all true, there are just other things to mitigate that.

Nonetheless, I never would have read any Georgette Heyer if not for him, and for that I'm eternally grateful.
posted by smoke at 4:43 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I must add: I happen to have a first edition of that Sayers' omnibus he mentions. Truly, it's an excellent anthology and it disappoints me that I've never seen a reprint anywhere as my copy is exceptionally tatty.
posted by smoke at 6:08 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


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