I 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.