Sunday, February 15, 2015

Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments by Michael Dirda

6. Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments by Michael Dirda

It is entirely apt, actually poetic, that I discovered this collection in a used bookstore. Throughout these pages, Dirda leads us down labyrinthine library steps, through bookstores forlorn and flourishing, to conferences focused on Wodehouse and Faulkner, to his own private paradise sabbatical featuring the The Tale of Genji. He is always in quest of the cheapest, most covetable, most elusive quarry--the books he wants to read.

Readings is a collection of essays that appeared in The Washington Post Book World from 1993-1999. Although they could easily be read separately, reading them together produces a pleasing mental marinade. For example, Dirda's emphasis on the physicality of books in each of his essays becomes all the more clear, even more so against a modern backdrop. In 1993 or 1995 or even 1999, it might not have stood out so much that Dirda is preoccupied with old paperbacks and books of correspondence and drools over a fellow book collector's plethora of palimpsest-style signed editions (signed to this author, for this author, owned by so-and-so-and-so-and-on). But now his preoccupations are both quaint and retro-cool.

He remembers searching for years for particular novels or collections, such as I Am Jonathan Scrivener. As an older adult, he "[pounces] like a rabid marmoset" on Queen Lucia, a book he had been wanting. Then he decides he wants the rest of the out-of-print series, so he "[begins his] usual search-and-acquire campaign in the Washington area's secondhand bookstores." But when his "infants" ask for a new computer for Christmas, he realizes that he can use the Internet to find his treasure.

Part of the allure of "booking," as he terms it, for Dirda (I suspect), and myself, is the hunt--searching over the course of years, investigating boxes and piles, usually able to turn up SOMETHING you've been longing for, due to the infinite nature of book lust. In Dirda's columns, books that he's desired for years take an added significance.He recounts when he heard about particular books and from whom, when and where he found them, and when and where he read them. These are moments that are very familiar to me, but I'm already starting to recognize myself as an anachronism, Dirda as a kindred spirit from another era.

If you're a reader's reader, this is a book for you. And I can think of no better mission than declaring that the best way to savor this experience is to go to your local used bookstores or library used book sales (or scour the Internet, if you have to) and ferret out your own used paperback copy.

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