News & Politics

“Washington Is a Terrific Place If You’re a Serious Reader”

An interview with book reviewer Michael Dirda

“If you’re not excited by the book you’re reading,” reviewer Michael Dirda says, “why bother?” Photograph by Jack Mitchell.

The great Washington novel has yet to be written, argues Michael Dirda. But he has a tip for anyone thinking about taking a crack at it: “There is one figure who, slightly fictionalized, could become the protagonist of a fabulous novel.”

That person? Former DC mayor Marion Barry.

In the seemingly indestructible politico, Dirda sees similarities with Willie Stark, the Southern politician who strode through Robert Penn Warren’s magisterial novel All the King’s Men.

Dirda, an editor and writer for the Washington Post since 1978, including many years as a book columnist, has been an erudite voice in the shrinking world of book reviewing. His interests are broad—intellectual history, science fiction, biography, romance, children’s literature—a trait he attributes to his working-class background in Ohio and his self-image: He considers himself “primarily a journalist, with scholarly interests and credentials.”

Dirda graduated from Oberlin with a BA in English and arrived in Washington in 1975 fresh off a PhD in comparative literature from Cornell. He worked as a technical writer for a company that created financial-planning systems for banks before landing a job at the Post. In 1993, he won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

The author of six books, the latest of which is On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, he remains optimistic about the future of the book in the digital age. The delivery system changes from age to age, he says, but our need for story is eternal.

Dirda lives in Silver Spring with his wife, Marian Peck Dirda, a conservator at the National Gallery of Art. They have three grown sons. Over several strong cups of coffee at Shagga Coffee & Restaurant in Hyattsville, he talked about what he’s learned.

See Also:

Dirda’s Picks For Books That Will Last

So many people say, “I don’t read fiction.” They’re engaged with the world, they’re bright, they’re interested in the larger questions of how we live—they just don’t read novels. How do you make the case for fiction?

I suspect that most of those people are defining the house of fiction by just a few of its rooms. They’re thinking fiction means a certain kind of literary novel, probably focusing on traumatic life crises and featuring angst-ridden characters. The truth is people don’t care about fiction—they care about story.

I recently judged an undergraduate short-story competition and was pleasantly surprised at how well the authors wrote. But the actual stories were for the most part rather dull. Nearly every story was about an anguished personal relationship.

I don’t know about you, but I read for excitement, though that excitement can take multiple forms. When I open a new book, I always recall Diaghilev’s command to the young Jean Cocteau: “Astonish me!”

So when people say they don’t like fiction, I suspect it’s because they’ve tried the wrong novels. My watchword has always been: Be bold. Read at whim. Explore every kind of genre book. Go back to the classics. Try works in translation. If you’re not excited by the book you’re reading, why bother? You don’t read because it’s good for you—you read because it makes you feel more alive.

How many hours a week do you devote to your work as a critic?

I work all the time, but it’s not as if I’m in a coal mine. My father labored for 40-some years in a steel mill and hated every day he was there. Since childhood, my main goal was to find a job that I really liked and that would pay me enough so I wouldn’t have to think about money all the time. I was lucky to find one.

For 25 years I worked at Book World. But for the past seven or so I’ve been a contract writer for the Post and a freelancer. Now I hustle harder than I ever did, working virtually every day.

We hear often about the faster pace of our lives, and it seems harder for people to figure out how books fit into their world. What can you say to them?

Life is always a matter of priorities, of triage. You can spend time watching American Idol or you can read The American by Henry James. You can watch Dancing With the Stars or read The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester.

Life constantly requires these kinds of choices—that’s the great tragedy of human existence. We can’t do or be everything we’d like. Deep down, I always wanted to be a card sharp like Bret Maverick, but I could never get those trick shuffles down pat.

What are the ten books you’d take with you to a desert island?

If you’re asking me to name the ten books I’d find most inexhaustible, besides the King James Bible I’d pick Plato’s Dialogues; Ovid, The Metamorphoses; Dante’s Divine Comedy; Montaigne’s Essays; Shakespeare’s plays and poems; Cervantes’s Don Quixote; Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; and the biggest volume of poetry in English that can be found.

But if you’re asking for the books that have meant most to me over the course of my life, this is what my ten would look like:

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle; Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural; Thoreau’s Walden; The Thurber Carnival, including My Life and Hard Times; Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment; Stendhal, The Life of Henry Brulard; Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave; Randall Jarrell—everything he wrote; Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel; and The Week-end Wodehouse.

You and Toni Morrison are both from Lorain, Ohio. Is there an argument to be made for Lorain in your development?

Of course. It’s a tough, rusty steel town, and I grew up in a world where books didn’t matter that much, at least not compared to athletic ability or prowess of other kinds.

It was a wonderful place for a dreamy kid because it allowed me to imagine myself as a writer—I never actually met one until I was 19. It instilled all those Horatio Alger virtues, too, because I had jobs ever since I was a kid—everything from delivering newspapers to installing aluminum siding to selling Fuller Brush products. After a couple of summers in the steel mill, I knew I didn’t want to spend my life near an open hearth or the pickling vats or the rolling mill.

Because there weren’t any bookstores in town, I learned to find books in thrift shops, Salvation Army stores, and neighbors’ basements. Each Saturday was an adventure as I pedaled my bike around town, looking for books. Sometimes I would stand at a drugstore rack and read an entire paperback over the course of an afternoon.

What book written in the past decade would you hold up as containing the best, most insightful representation of how Americans live now?

This first decade of the 21st century has been so fragmented—and so unified—by the computer that nobody has yet managed the great social-networking novel. Most of the nonfiction has been about our dispirited society—wrecked by Wall Street’s greed, threatened by terrorism, caught up in fruitless wars. No wonder people want to escape into simulated digital worlds, play games all day, update their Facebook pages, and wish they could really become their avatars.

Maybe the best depiction of our current society is actually the graphic-novel series The Walking Dead, which is about a group of survivors in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse and takes place partly in Washington.

How does Washington rate as a reading city?

The people who choose to live here tend to be outer- rather than inner-directed. Most people don’t come to DC because they’re going to be artists or they want to enrich their spiritual life. They come here because they’re interested in power.

I’ve done my best to remind people that works of literature, history, and humanistic scholarship can enrich their whole lives if they give them a chance. That’s why my reviews tend to be as enthusiastic and lively as I can make them. I hate to see good books overlooked.

Still, Washington is a terrific place if you’re a serious reader or want to be one. Authors constantly come here to talk at the Library of Congress, the Folger, and local colleges. There are dozens of book signings each week. And until the rise of the Internet, there were scores of used-book stores. You have terrific writers living here as well.

How can the average person become a more discerning reader?

One, move your lips when you read, or at least say the words aloud in your head. Writers care about the sound of their sentences or the lines of their poems, and the best way to appreciate a distinctive style is to slow down and listen to the voice on the page.

Two, always read with a pencil in your hand. Mark favorite passages. Scribble questions or comments in the margin. Argue with the author.

Three, resist habit and complacency. Don’t just pick up every James Patterson or Charlaine Harris novel that comes out. Try something new or old, or translated from a foreign language, or in a field that you know nothing about but that sounds interesting.

There’s been a lot of brooding on the future of the book. Will it survive?

Human beings need stories and poetry—always have, always will. The delivery system does change, but there’s an aura to the physical book that digital screens can’t duplicate.

Books are more than just texts. A personal library is a reflection of who you are or the person you’d like to be. Owning an e-book reader is like having a library card—you can check out almost anything, but the book somehow never quite seems your own.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with competing formats. New technology and media can usefully jolt us into new ways of looking at familiar material. And the project of making the world’s libraries easily available is a godsend for poor countries.

My guess is that physical books will be with us for another generation but by the middle of this century they’ll have started to become collectibles rather than central to education and literate culture. I’d really like to be wrong about this.

Will the changes to book publishing bring a change in the kinds of books we’re going to see?

It’ll be a great age of information and opinion, but of art? I wonder. Books have traditionally been sources of wisdom and beauty, but computers are largely repositories of facts, opinion, and information. Google and Wikipedia are great tools—machines are invaluable at this sort of hard-edged indexing and retrieval. But that’s not learning; that’s not any deepening of your spirit. You got the answer but missed the experience.

Online forums and social networking are great for schmoozing, and they obviously allow hobbyists of whatever sort to trade useful information. But somehow everything digital ends up seeming trifling, not quite real.

I also feel deeply conflicted about online bookselling. When I go to a bookshop, I almost never know what I’m going to come out with. And that’s why I go. I relish that sense of adventure and serendipity, the feeling that anything might turn up.

What’s been your experience with e-readers?

I’ve tried one a few times, but the page-turn delay annoyed me. I also don’t like the way e-readers reduce all books to essentially one book. I prefer variety—give me Raymond Chandler as a cheap paperback with a leggy blonde on the cover and Alexander Pope in the handsome Twickenham edition. I’m fond of older books, too, like those Jules Verne volumes with steel engravings, and I like to read first editions because that’s how a novel or collection of poems first looked when it was launched into the world.

E-books resemble motel rooms—bland and efficient. Books are home—real, physical things you can love and cherish and make your own, till death do you part. Or till you run out of shelf space.

What have you learned about life?

Chekhov once said you have to be a god to judge success and failure without making a mistake. Despite a few honors and a relatively good run in life so far, I’ve found that nothing lives up to one’s youthful dreams. In general, you do tend to get what you want, but there’s nearly always some catch. In my observation, all honors come either too soon or too late.

I’ve learned that all pleasure is fleeting, that friendship and family are typically undervalued, that envy is a pernicious temptation, and that there’s no feeling so wonderful as that of competence in your chosen work.

I nearly dropped out of college in the fall of my freshman year, and I might easily have ended up spending a very unhappy life sweating out the years at National Tube. My dad did just that.

I’ve loved books since childhood, and I’m grateful to have been able to buy a house and build a personal library and support a family and pay for my kids’ educations and generally pass my days doing what I value most.

This article appears in the January 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.