It's awfully refreshing, in this Age of Noise, to know that there are still critics like Michael Dirda reading the pages of books old and new. When every day seems to bring new pronouncements of the death of literature or the rise of social media as cultural imperative, it's easy to lose faith in one's faith. Thank goodness for good old-fashioned readers like Dirda, who reminds us on each page of "Browsings," his seventh collection of literary journalism, of the deep and soulful pleasures of a great book.
Erudition such as Dirda's — so deep, so wide — can sometimes come across as snobbish or arrogant or even mordant. But these 52 essays (originally written in 2012 and 2013 and published weekly at the American Scholar) showcase Dirda's remarkable range of fancy and his indomitable and unabashed joyfulness in the memory of his own reading life.
And what a reading life it has been. Among its many topics, "Browsings" includes essays on subjects as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Foster Wallace. In an essay called "Books on Books," he relishes his own library of hard-bound tomes by declaring, "I … think of some books as my friends and I like to have them around."
In "Going, Going, Gone" he celebrates his favorite used bookstores, places of refuge and retreat. In conclusion to an essay about Philip Roth's "retirement" from writing fiction and the perils of aging as relates to literary endeavors, he writes: "What is the law? Literary generations come and go, and each generation passeth away and is heard of no more. In the end, simply the artistic making itself — of poems and stories and essays — delivers the only reward a writer can be sure of." He might just as easily be talking about life itself.
For all their intelligence, these essays are not pedantic. Rather, they have a sort of plain-spoken elegance about them, one that relies more on a generosity of feeling than on an excess of intellect. It seems that most readers find their way to their favorite books for this very reason: to identify with some feeling, be it longing or sentiment or something else altogether. By this measure — and just about any other you might come up with — Dirda shows that he's one of the most accessible critics still doing the good work.
Consider his final thought from his final essay: "Let me stress, one last time, that the world is full of wonderful stories, heartbreakingly beautiful and witty poems, thrilling works of history, biography, and philosophy. They will make you laugh, or hug yourself with pleasure, or deepen your thinking, or move you as profoundly as any experience this side of a serious love affair."
How could the pleasures of reading ever be described better?
Peter Geye is a Minneapolis writer and book critic. His third novel, "The Winterers," will be published next year.