Book Review: Browsings
by Michael Dirda
Pegasus Books, 2015
Micael Dirda opens his newest collection, Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, with a dedication to the memory of Clifton Fadiman, Randall Jarrell, Cyril Connolly, and Robert Phelps, all of whom were, in addition to other things (excellent educator, for instance, or excellent poet, or excellent editor, or excellent second-rate novelist), bookworms of the first water (Dirda alludes to the old term “bookmen,” which is nostalgic but no more acceptable now than it was fifty years ago, since then, as now, every “bookman” knew at least three women more bookish than himself). It’s a very good gallery of ghosts to invoke for this collection of book-musings, which Dirda originally produced as regular columns on The American Scholar‘s home page from 2012 to 2013. Every one of those four writers wrote piles of book reviews and book-thoughts in the course of his career, and all of those writings are very much worth reading, just as Dirda himself is always very much worth reading.
“Browsings” fits the tone of these piece fairly well. Almost absent from this collection are the longer, more studied book reviews that Dirda writes for a living in all the most prestigious literary journals of the day (except, one can’t help noticing, Open Letters Monthly – maybe he’s just not ready). Here we have his thoughts on book-collecting, small presses, Christmas reading, the great old lineup of Dover reprints, and dozens more topics that might at first seem too trivial to bear much weight. They expand under Dirda’s careful examination into topics worthy of discussion (one of those book-women, Rose Macaulay, did this same thing exquisitely in her collection Personal Pleasures), just as his own personal library has expanded over the decades to fill more physical space than he has available, although every die-hard reader will nod at his description of how little that matters:
What books, you ask? Ah, now those I don’t have to imagine. I may actually live in a pokey little brick colonial, its outside wood trim much in need of fresh paint, with an embarrassingly dilapidated kitchen, two bathrooms that were new about 1940, and closets designed by elves to hold no more than two shirts and a belt. But my library would fit right into my daydream.
He has his crotchety moments, naturally, as any veteran reader does. There’s a spike of opinion in these “Browsings” that’s often sanded down in his longer, more formal book reviews (editors!), and it’s always enjoyable to encounter, even when its targets are a tad on the predictable side:
Despite the rising popularity of the downloadable e-text, I still care about physical books, gravitate to handsome editions and pretty dust jackets, and enjoy seeing rows of hardcovers on my shelves. Many people simply read fiction for pleasure and nonfiction for information. I often do myself. But I also think of some books as my friends and I like to have them around. They brighten my life.
Although he enjoys a wide popularity with readers of all stripes, Dirda is required reading for that smaller group of readers who also write, and for them, perhaps the best piece in Browsings will be “Going, Going, Gone,” in which he describes the pleasure, the downright physical necessity, of breaking up a long stretch of writing by doing what comes naturally: heading out to your favorite used bookshops and seeing what’s new. True, the work is always waiting back at home, but Dirda wonderfully captures how this particular browsing very nearly approximates paradise:
But ah those three hours or so of wandering the shelves, pulling out interesting-looking titles, checking prices, trying to remember if I already own this book or that and, if I do, whether I really owe it to myself to upgrade to an incredibly pretty copy for only $5. Before long, my one or two books is a stack, then a boxful. Should I, perhaps, put back a few? Naaah. You only live once. Besides, with any justice, Heaven itself will resemble a vast used bookstore, with a really good cafe in one corner, serving coffee and Guinness and kielbasa to keep up one’s strength while browsing, and all around will be the kind of angles usually found in Victoria’s Secret catalogs. All my old friends will be there and sometimes we’ll take off a few millennia for an epic poker game and …