Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books
As one who loves to read, I have recently turned to books about books as a wonderful source of information. Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic and a longtime contributor of book articles to the Washington Post. He was once hailed by The Paris Review as “the best-read person in America.” Between February 2012 and February 2013, he contributed a column each Friday to the homepage of The American Scholar. As Dirda explains to readers, he intended to write those literary essays for one year and then stop. The column was titled “Browsings.”
As the title suggests, BROWSINGS: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books is a collection of those columns in one literary location. It is a witty, informative and amusing book, filled with small treasures of insight that booklovers will retain as a roadmap to future reading adventures. There are countless book lists by author and subject, as well as fascinating discussions of books about books. BROWSINGS does have one drawback, though. As one who maintains a large pile of unread books, I know that my stack will be growing based on Dirda’s wonderful observations and recommendations.
"...a witty, informative and amusing book, filled with small treasures of insight that booklovers will retain as a roadmap to future reading adventures."
Dirda’s predecessor for the column was William Zinsser, the author of ON WRITING WELL, an excellent book on linguistic style that happens to sit near my computer and I have often recommended and quoted to my students. Dirda talks about Zinsser’s own books and writing, ending with advice that appears often in BROWSINGS and that I will gladly accept and pass along: “Find your own copy of the book.”
In the essay “Armchair Adventure,” Dirda discusses classes he teaches at the University of Maryland on adventure novels. One class covers classic novels from 1885-1915, and the second addresses modern novels from 1917-1973. The lists of swashbuckling works are what Dirda labels “comfort books.” Readers appreciate that Dirda, a scholarly man, emphasizes that there are many fabulous places your reading may take you. As he observes, “Fiction is a house with many stately mansions, but also one in which it is wise, at least sometimes, to swing from the chandeliers.”
There is something noteworthy in each essay of this collection. In “Anthologies and Collections,” Dirda observes that anthologies resemble dating. You have some good experiences and some not-so-good ones. Eventually you find one writer you truly enjoy, and you settle down with him or her. Sometimes it lasts a lifetime, and years of reading monogamy occur. But always remember that literature is not life, and the rules are somewhat more flexible.
I could continue discussing each individual essay, but that would spoil your reading pleasure --- not only because of the subject of the essays, but because of the wonderful manner in which they are written. There is humor, thoughtful writing, and a graceful style resembling having a beer with a good friend. At one point, Dirda observes, “I always feel at home in libraries and bookstores, they restoreth my soul.” I feel the same way about BROWSINGS, and am happy to invite my many reading friends to an open house for a book that I know I will keep in my collection and enjoy for years to come.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on August 14, 2015