Michael Dirda’s Browsings

browsings copy“Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know. … Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life.” (p. 233)

Any book-lovers looking for some non-academic summer reading, which still offers some intellectual bite, should consider Browsings (Pegasus Books, 2016), an enchanting collection of what the author calls ‘light essays’. Michael Dirda, a Pultizer-prize winning author, book reviewer and critic, wrote a weekly essay for the online American Scholar magazine. This book collects these essays, covering a wide variety of topics – education, government, art, grammar, gun control, travel, Christmas, publishing, history, and so on – but all ultimately having something to do with books and book collecting.

Sub-titled ” a year of reading, collecting and living with books”, Browsings is a paen to the joys of the old literary world. Dirda does not care for Kindles and iPads; he has a house filled with physical books, and fantasises about providing a proper home for them, ideally in the library of an English country house. He accepts the value of services like AbeBooks, one of my stock answers to those of my generation who find little good in the internet; but Dirda laments that using such systems is shopping, not collecting, and loses serendipity.

I am not always entirely in sympathy with what used to be called ‘bookmen’, feeling that their enthusiasm for the physical details of book as object, and their cultish enthusiasms for the small press as against the large publisher, sometimes wore a bit thin. Dirda stays, for me, on the right side of the line, and conveys his enthusiasms without ever becoming tedious. It helps that some of his interests – science fiction and fantasy, supernatural stories, Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes – align with my own; and I have to warm to someone who also appreciates Clark Ashton Smith’s “lushly poetic prose of almost hypnotic beauty”.

Dirda even tell us how to read the book; not more than two or three essays at a sitting. Normally, I rather object to this sort of instruction from an author, feeling that if I’ve gone to the bother of buying or borrowing the book, I’ll decide how to read it. In this case, however, I have to admit that Dirda is right; this is a book for dipping into, rather than continuous reading.

Michael Dirda
Michael Dirda
“All these ziggurats of books in the bedroom and on the attic steps and on top of the piano are future projects, awaiting the time when the stars are right. Then great Cthulhu will rise … No, that’s something else that happens when the stars are right. As I meant to say, each stack will sooner or later be transformed into an essay, article, or long review.” (p157)

In reviewing Browsing, Alberto Manguel, author of the excellent The Library at Night, writes that it is “a marvellous collection for serious book lovers, common readers, and all of us who take a guilty delight in the gossip of literature”. It is all of those things; but it is also an illuminating insight into a world that is passing. It is worth reading to be reminded, or perhaps for the millennial generation to be informed, of the value of the universe of the printed book. And it offers an inspiration for those us who also have piles, if not quite yet ziggurats, of books waiting to be dealt with.

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