BY PRADEEP SEBASTIAN
MICHAEL DIRDA renews your passion for serious reading. Bound To Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education (W.W. Norton, 2005, $35), a collection of his book reviews and essays, skips contemporary writers in favour of classical and modernist masters. Just what I needed seduced by genre fiction and waylaid by historical thrillers, I've been guilty of neglecting serious literature. Dirda offers Herodotus, Emerson, The Bible, Proust, The Arabian Nights and Pepys as though they were the latest literary sensations you can't afford to pass by. But these are only six out of more than a hundred superbly entertaining reviews that include what he calls serious entertainers Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Avram Davidson, K.C. Constantine, Vernon Lee and neglected or little known literary masters such as Fernando Pessoa, Djuna Barnes, Ronald Firbank, Italo Svevo, Flan O'Brien, and Machado de Assis. His method is a close reading of their work. "Think of these articles as old fashioned appreciations," he writes, "a fan's notes, good talk. My primary goal is to... convey something of each book's particular magic, strength, or excitement."
Makes reading fun again
Lately I seem to have become somewhat of a lapsed reader, becoming nostalgic for the kind of serious reader I once was. Dirda to the rescue: he makes reading seem so much fun that you want to drop everything and do it. He makes you feel the pleasure books give him. He makes you covet bookishness. He got me thinking about what bookishness meant in India, and what it means now: it once was something you didn't want to admit to: being bookish (or worse, a bookworm) meant you weren't tough and practical and worldly. Now, suddenly, it's a new virtue, even a goal, because reading is on the decline. I don't want to offer that cliché about a generation lost to video games, the Internet and TV, but they seem to have ambushed us; we don't anymore embrace a book and lose ourselves in it with the abandon and excitement we reserve for watching a movie or surfing the Net. Are books simply too serious for us? asks Dirda and calls for a return to bookishness to pick up a real book, even a difficult book and to "hunger for seriousness".
For sometime now Dirda, Pulitzer-winner for literary criticism, celebrated columnist and book reviewer at The Washington Post Book World (the Indian equivalent of this literary supplement can only be The Hindu's Literary Review), has been America's most engaging, energetic book critic. (My favourite Dirda collection, however, is Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, personal, witty essays on the bibliophile). Bound To Please is not only a virtual textbook in the craft of book reviewing, it is a primer on how to write a brilliant review on a tight deadline: Dirda gets five days to review a book and write a 1,800-word piece, and in the space of a month, he writes five such pieces! Dirda's secret which he eagerly shares with us is that you have to be a certain kind of reader a deliberate reader to write a decent review.
In his introduction, he talks a little about the way he goes about writing a book review. While reading and browsing, he accumulates notes, and anecdotes and facts and even "thoughts", all of which are set down in a bound composition notebook with black and white speckled covers. To mark key passages he "pencils vertical lines in the margins of that week's uncorrected page proofs... sometimes I'll scribble an idea on the endpapers, or make a list of pages to refer back to. In every possible way, I contrive to make my encounter with a book a relatively slow, deliberate enterprise, one in which I look for salient arguments, linger over the author's style, take issue with his conclusions or storytelling".
Dirda dispels the myth of the writer for whom words simply flow onto the pages. "I work hard at word choice, balance, rhythm... I write slowly, by methodical, almost geological accretion, setting down one sentence at a time, saying it over to myself, then adding another... always listening to the sound of the words. By the time the review is finished, I will have silently mouthed its sentences scores of times. The next morning I glance blearily over my printout, make a few more improvements (usually a matter of cutting things for space) and then it's time to start reading the next book". Reviewing Martin Amis' essay collection The War Against Cliché, Dirda picks out what Amis has to say about Updike: "As a literary journalist, John Updike has that single inestimable virtue: having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes". And that's exactly how I feel about reading Michael Dirda.
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