Book by Book

10612367.gifI finished Michael Dirda’s Book by Book yesterday and have mixed feelings about it. When Dirda sticks to discussing specific books and giving book lists, he’s quite interesting and the book is a pleasure to read. When he begins to wax philosophical about life, he becomes banal and cliche.

The book is organized by topics such as “Work and Leisure,” “The Book of Love,” and “Matters of the Spirit,” and within each chapter he discusses his ideas about the topic and books that shed light on it. Typically, he’ll give a book list with a short discussion of each item on it, a lot of quotations on the subject he’s gathered through his reading, his own views and advice on the subject, and maybe a more extended analysis of a few relevant books. The book would have been stronger if he’d either omitted the philosophizing entirely or, well, been a better philosopher. He should have highlighted the books more.

But I did find a few chapters very interesting and full of good recommendations. (For a discussion of one of these lists, see Stefanie’s post from a while back.) “The Interior Library” is especially good — here are some passages I liked; this first one is about reading as a love affair:

The rapport between a reader and his or her book is almost like that between lovers. The relationship grows, envelops a life, lays out new prospects and ways of seeing oneself and the future, is filled with moments of joy and sorrow; when it’s over, even its memory enriches as few experiences can. But just as one cannot psychically afford to fall in love too many times, suffer its gantlet of emotions too often and still remain whole, so the novel-reader cannot read too many books of high purpose and harrowing dimension or do so too often. Burnout, a failure to respond with the intensity literature demands, is the result. As with a love affair, the battered heart needs time to recover from a good work of fiction.

Here’s a passage on poetry:

To read a volume of poetry is to enter the world of the mesmerist. In a serious artist’s collected poems, the single constant is usually his or her distinctive, increasingly hyponotic voice. Without relying on plot, dramatic action, or a cast of characters, lyric poets, especially, must entrance us with their words until we cannot choose but hear. Eager for more, we turn page after page because we find ourselves in thrall to a particular diction.

This makes me wonder if I’m not reading my current book of poems, Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise, in the best way; I’ve been reading through it very slowly, a couple of poems at a time, and reading each one several times, trying to look for poetic elements such as metaphor and alliteration, which I see sometimes, but just as often don’t. I wonder if I shouldn’t read more for the voice — in this instance, not necessarily with every book of poems — and read faster, letting the “poetic” elements strike me or not, but mostly concentrating on the voice, because Kenyon does have a distinctive one that I like. I tend to think that I should read all poetry in the same way — slowly and carefully, letting the words really soak in — and that’s definitely a good way to read poetry, but perhaps some books are better read differently.

Finally, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite lists from the book, a list of creative nonfiction Dirda recommends, “some of which should be better known.” He’s narrowed down the list by focusing on 20C writers in English:

  • Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians
  • A.J.A. Symons, The Quest for Corvo
  • Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana
  • Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel
  • Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
  • M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating
  • Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave
  • Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism
  • Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince
  • S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives
  • Richard Ellmann, James Joyce
  • Alison Lurie, V.R. Lang: A Memoir
  • Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia
  • Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
  • Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination
  • The Paris Review “Writers at Work” collections

I put the Symons, Byron, and Morris books on my TBR list right away, the Symons because it’s a biography but also about the process of writing biography much like Footsteps was, the Byron because I’d like to read more travel writing, and Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince, because it’s about Japan during the time of The Tale of Genji and would help me understand that book better. On Eminent Victorians, make sure to read Bloglily.  I’ve read only the Dinesen book; the others I will need to look into eventually.


Filed under Books, Lists, Nonfiction

9 responses to “Book by Book

  1. I love those quotes you posted. It sounds like an interesting book even with the potential problems that you point out.


  2. I read about him somewhere–most likely here on your blog and was considering ordering one of his books. Perhaps I will try and check one out from the library first (I ended up getting another Anne Fadiman book instead). I love the quotes, though–especially the love affair one. I like how he says we need to recover from a really good book–I totally agree!! Thanks for the list–I have not read a single one, though I just recently bought the Mitchell, and have Out of Africa and In Cold Blood on my shelves. One of my weak points…nonfiction!


  3. What an interesting book – I feel I ought to read it because again it’s in the general area of non-fiction writing that I’m interested in, but I do hear you about those flaws. Oh well, we’ll see. The list of non-fiction he recommends is fascinating, but I’ll be starting with Footsteps first!


  4. Del

    I read this book last year and thanks to it have added several titles to my own reading list, but I agree with your observations on some of the passages not specifically related to books and reading. I enjoyed An Open Book even more for its autiobiographical “development of a reader” approach. Bound to Please seems to be full of wonderful reading suggestions including many books that are not very well-known. I think we are fortunate to have critics like Dirda who have not only read everything, but are able and willing to write about books in such an accessible way.


  5. Nic

    Reading as a love affair… oh, yes!

    Ditto for me on World of the Shining Prince – when I finally get around to starting Genji, that is. The Capote and the Byron are also on my extensive list of Things I Really Find Time For…


  6. I felt the same way about the Dirda book. When he wrote about books I loved it, but when he got philosophical it got boring.


  7. Hmm. I lied. I did order a Dirda book called Readings–have you read it? I was bad, bought both Fadiman, Dirda and a novel…I hope they come in the mail today.


  8. I’m glad you like them Carl. Danielle, this is the only book of his I’ve read. My guess is that his others are stronger; I like his writing, and I bet when he focuses more on books, he does better. Litlove — if you do read him, it’s probably best to pick another of his books, but he has lots of books on books and reading. Del, perhaps I’ll try those two books you mention; I’m certainly open to reading more of Dirda’s stuff. Nic — I’m not sure when I’ll ever get to things on that list, but I sure would like to! And I hope you enjoy Genji when you get there. Stefanie — I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way!


  9. I liked the way Dirda structured “Book by Book” into categories of books. I also enjoyed many of the quotations interspersed throughout the book- even one of these led me to a new and interesting author. If anyone wants an example of Dirda’s writing, there are articles, reviews, columns, and discussions archived at the site. Just search for Dirda at the site.


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