Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz

January 2001 ATLANTIC

Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, by Michael Dirda (Indiana).

boy in bookshopIn these brief essays Michael Dirda, a columnist for theWashington Post Book World, writes about his passionate entanglement with books — as a voracious and wide-ranging reader, as a proselytizer who is almost childlike in his enthusiasms, as an obsessive hunter frequenting used-book shops and library sales, and as a generous, subtle critic. Echoing Randall Jarrell, one of his heroes, Dirda laments the shrinking of the common store of knowledge possessed by “well educated” readers, and he clearly sees his mission as one of enticing as many as he can to read — and love — the literary classics and serious works of history and biography. His obvious relish of books allows him to exhort without sounding self-important and without making reading difficult works seem like taking medicine. Dirda’s greatest service, though, is leading his readers to unjustly neglected or forgotten titles: only a critic magnificently unconcerned with the intellectually and academically fashionable would (twice!) recommend to Post readers G. M. Young’s long-out-of-print book-length essay Victorian England: Portrait of an Age, a masterpiece of literature as much as of history. Equally unusual is Dirda’s preference for wit and style over “issues” — hence his relentless championing of A. P. Herbert, P. G. Wodehouse, E. F. Benson (he perfectly captures the saccharine malice of Benson’s characters), Ronald Firbank, Evelyn Waugh, and Cyril Connolly. Despite his near-rabid bibliophilia, in writers — and other matters — Dirda prizes wryness and detachment rather than zeal: “Clarity is as much a mental and emotional virtue as it is a stylistic one.” Collections of previously published short pieces hardly ever work as books. This one does, thanks to Dirda’s earnestness and charming old-fashionedness.

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