- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

Michael Dirda, staff writer and senior editor at The Washington Post Book World has been in the business of book reviewing for over two decades. His insightful, graciously written reviews earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1993, and his capacity for finding important and sometimes deliciously obscure books upon which to cast his always interesting and sensible judgments have won him many admirers.

Since there are only two daily newspapers in Washington, D.C. and, thus, only two book review sections, I have for a great deal of time followed the doings at Mr. Dirda’s shop — known lovingly in these parts as O.P. for Other Paper. And, at the risk of sounding like a stalker, I have also kept my eyes on Mr. Dirda.

It was therefore with no small amount of anticipation that I dove into his utterly engaging, highly personal paean to the reading and writing life aptly titled “An Open Book.” From the earliest pages of this moving and skillful memoir, it became apparent to me that Mr. Dirda and I have a lot in common.

There is only a slight age difference between us, he being four years older than I am. He was born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, a steel town. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. His earliest reading adventures were with comic books and Sherlock Holmes and serial adventures. My earliest reading adventures were with comic books, Sherlock Holmes and dodging invectives from smart boys not unlike Mr. Dirda who thought books for girls like the Candy Striper series were dull and dumb, a judgment I tried in vain to explain that I shared.

No one had a lot of money where he grew up. The same was true for my neck of the woods. He is descended from Slovaks and Russians, with one of his grandparents having been a Cossack. My background is Russian Jewish with my grandparents having been chased by Cossacks. (I make mention of this, by the way, solely for the sake of similitude, nothing more.)

From communities that were ethnically diverse, with high culture being more a result of determination than osmosis, each of us appears to have outdistanced the humbler aspects of our respective roots in order to become “cultivated as well as erudite” and to find the occupation we love.

I draw this comparison not to shamelessly insert myself into another’s story, but to make the point that the intimate revelations about his life that Mr. Dirda generously shares made me believe from start to finish that I was reading about my own. And that is the gift of his fine book. My guess is that just about anyone reading it will have the same reaction. Though the sections about his often angry, difficult father are painful to contemplate, Mr. Dirda’s openness and honesty about his discovery of the joy of books simply will make every bookworm on the planet cheer for its validating effect.

Constructed as a memoir that extends from early childhood, a time when he discovered “the warmth and snugness” of his mother’s lap, on through to the start of his adult career, the book is loaded with the drama and abundance of a rich and remarkable literary awakening. Overflowing with the thirst and appreciation of a passionately curious reader, what he calls his “autodidactic zeal,” Mr. Dirda is never overly sentimental, even during the book’s most touching moments.

At these times, it is a pithy observation from a literary master he admires that heightens his recollections:

“About halfway through the evening, Mom, having noticed me squirreled away in a corner, brought me a Coke and a ham sandwich with sweet pickles on soft rye bread … I’ve never forgotten that Christmas. To be warm and safe on a cold night, enjoying delicious home cooked food, while reading an enthralling book, with the noise of nickles and dimes plinking on a kitchen table and the soft susurration of mothers talking about their children in a gift-strewn, brightly decorated living room was to inhabit, for an hour or two, what Wordsworth called a ‘spot of time,’ a rare moment of complete and unalloyed happiness.”

From the adventure stories and biographies “devoured” in his youth, through his acquaintance with the classics in high school, “partially guided” by a curious trio of mentors he discovered on his own — Dale Carnegie, Clifton Fadiman and Mortimer Adler — Mr. Dirda’s intellectual horizons blossomed. His journey, always steady, always animated by surprise and delight keeps the reader always interested in where it all is headed.

Along the way, readers are treated to glimpses of life in the 1950s and ‘60s with Mr. Dirda as a tour guide. His recollections of that landscape will be particularly appreciated by readers who took pleasure from the same icons of popular culture and its doodads: slinkies, “Sky King,” “Zorro,” Peter Lorre in “M,” Annette Funnicello, Kool-Aid.

There are discreet intimations of Mr. Dirda’s sexual awakenings and early appreciation of the world outside of Lorain — travels to Mexico and France, college at Oberlin and graduate school at Cornell, with important stops in New York and finally Washington.

Mr. Dirda bypasses for the most part the turbulent events of his coming-of-age such as the Vietnam War and the 1968 riots during which he retreated to the college library for sessions of “sweet, silent reading.”

However, barely a page goes by without some record of what he was reading at any given time. All is lively, witty and packed. Mr. Dirda’s is a mind that can barely contain its vistas, and I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit to being awed by just how much he has read.

Mr. Dirda spends a great deal of time portraying those teachers who at important junctures guided and instructed him: a favorite high school French teacher, an inspiring classicist at Oberlin, a hard driving teacher of metaphysical poetry at Cornell. His “favorite teacher of all” was Mathis Szykowski, an expert on the 19th century novel who also taught a French stylistics course. He writes with typical irony and playfulness, “In Mathis Szykowski’s French class I learned to write English.”

It is not surprising that as he winds down his memoir, Mr. Dirda gives space over to those literary critics who have also shaped his thinking: Northrop Frye, Eric Auerbach, R.P. Blackmur and Edmund Wilson. From them, he acquired a passion and skill for the close reading without which effective criticism is not possible.

From one who took great joy in Dante but who also knew the place of a volume called “How to Pick Up Women,” the joy of reading is boundless. To read this book is to share for a spot of time in Mr. Dirda’s unbridled enthusiasm. And I daresay, among everything worth remembering from this bountiful book it is the words of Wallace Stevens placed in one of many pitch perfect epigrams Mr. Dirda has chosen to head a chapter that sticks: “After all, they knew that to be real each had/To find for himself his earth, his sky, his sea.”

Mr. Dirda seems to have found his moorings and we who love books are all the better for it.

AN OPEN BOOK: COMING OF AGE IN THE HEARTLAND

By Michael Dirda

Norton, Tk, 335 pages, illus.

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