I had the pleasure of picking up Michael Dirda’s Bound to Please recently. It is an extraordinary collection of his contributions to The Washington Post Book World, as well as a grand testimony to a life-time of reading.
I wish to single out my favourite book essay: Dirda’s review for A.S. Byatt’s Possession. The entire review could be condensed with a single, drool-splattering, "Wow." But it is the little Postscript he added to the version published in Bound to Please that I love. He reveals that the Byatt review has personal significance for him, as it was published the day his youngest son was born. Soon after reading the review, A. S. Byatt invited him out for lunch. They have become friends since.
This is the kind of reviews I like. The sheer humanness in it, that brings you back to why you read in the first place.
Michael Dirda has become a reviewer I seek out. He writes book reviews like a fanboy with a hard-on (I meant this as a compliment). I’ve found his reviews often personal and engaging. Some might argue, the point of the book review is the book itself – not the reviewer. I agree, but Michael Dirda injects his essays with a heartfelt personal engagement that sparkles and brings it to life. Afterall, for many of us, reading is a highly personal experience. Ex Libris, as they say. Out of the book. We read for what the book reveals of ourselves, and we are often the better for it.
I can’t abide reviewers who approach their readings like an autopsy. Clinical, detached, cold. I want biro, I want bile. I want the occasional bitchiness if the book is really bad.
When I pick up books on books like Bound to Please, I always skip ahead to the essays on books I’ve read (or want to read). For me, book reviews is a kind of dialogue with the reviewer (where I am doing most of the listening). We read book reviews, not just to seek out more books to read, but because we want to know what someone think about the book. We want to know how they feels - and do we agree with them?
Watch as I skipped to Page 306 in the Norton edition of Bound to Please. Here Dirda writes about Judith Thurman’s Secrets of the Flesh. Or rather, he writes about Colette and her vibrant, passionate life - full of pleasures and frustrations, contradictions and mysteries. I adore Colette. And I like this man, Michael Dirda, who writes so respectfully of Colette.
Most importantly, Michael Dirda is a true reader after my own heart: A man who reads beyond genres. In this collection alone, you can find reviews on the books of Terry Pratchett, Ben Okri, Philip Pullman as well as Umberto Eco. You can also check out Dirda’s essays on the biographies of a variety of literary figures such as Bruce Chatwin, John Ruskin, Jorge Luis Borges, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. (I recommend his piece on the biography of Samuel Beckett. I came out of it admiring the great-hearted Beckett.)
And if you are really interested, on Page 9 Dirda reads The Bible.