Michael Dirda defends book criticism

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Growing up, my father—who always wanted to instruct his retarded son—frequently uttered the phrase, “I’ll pass this side only once.” Since Papa was no one to care for anyone outside of our extended family, he never quoted the rest of the old Quaker proverb, “All the good I can do or any kindness I can show to a man; let me do it now.” No, he just meant that I shouldn’t put things off, assuming I’d come back to them later.

To my surprise, this fatherly advice, without my knowing exactly how, became the enduring principle of my professional life as a writer and reviewer—at least until recently. Over the years I’ve certainly returned several times to a handful of writers, most notably those twin monsters, Evelyn Waugh and Vladimir Nabokov, but overall I never counted on rereading anything. I give every book or topic my best and then move on to something new.

What bookstores and literary life contribute to…life

Still, I often recall with a sense of guilt Oscar Wilde pointing out that if a book isn’t worth reading over and over, it shouldn’t be read at all. That’s essentially an aesthetic stance, a connoisseur’s approach — or, more sadly, the fate of a college professor who’s stuck teaching Milton for the next 40 years. But since adolescence I wanted to experience as many books as possible, to become familiar with, as Matthew Arnold’s slogan goes, the best that has been thought and said. It should be emphasized that for me the “best” means the best in any genre, not just the traditional classics of world literature.

Lately, though, I’ve begun to question the relentless, never-ending hustle and bustle of my life. Each week I settle for three or four days of frenzied reading and research, trying to get myself somewhat qualified to say something interesting about a novel, biography, or scientific work. The first drafts I then scribble on almost always come across to me as—to use an irresistible oxymoron—deeply superficial, disparaging the author, the book, the happy few who make up my “audience,” and even myself. That’s when I start to wonder how I ever got into this business. No doubt some Post readers are speculating about this as well. Even so, the next morning I gather myself together and flip through my design literally dozens of times, adding details, sharpening my so-called thoughts, thickening the thin prose, and working hard to make it all sound easy and friendly.

In the end, as my deadline approaches, I write each Thursday column pathetically gloomy and wish it were better. In reality, tenacity—my only gift from the gods—can accomplish just as much. If only I had 20 points on my IQ! If only I hadn’t fallen down the basement stairs when I was two and cracked my head – my father told me later that I had seemed quite a smart kid until then. Being all too aware of my shortcomings as an author, I never torment myself any further by looking at the online comments about my essays and reviews.

Dazzling mystery novels are not for me. This is what I would choose instead.

Of course, “the unspeakable horror of literary life”—to use the phrase of Mr. Earbrass to borrow from Edward Gorey’s “The Unstrung Harp” – a well-known trend in the writing world. But to use one of my favorite expressions, hour after hour, week after week, I keep poking at sentences in hopes of making them better. Of course, any professional writer is extremely lucky, even blessed. What we do for a living, most people around the world would hardly think of as work. My hands and clothes are clean at the end of the day.

The evening brings at least a glass of beer or wine, along with some Jarlsberg cheese and crackers. The start of the day is another matter. Every morning when I look at the newspaper, I mumble to myself: Why should I care? Does anyone really care about books in these depressing and violent times? Obviously some people have to, and yet a passion for reading seems vaguely strange these days, while being called ‘bookish’ or ‘learned’ borders on an insult, suggesting a somewhat wimpy, even elitist, otherworldliness. After all, books emphasize inwardness, encourage empathy, require reflection, and are intended to spark rational discussion and dissent. Good luck to those at a time when the screed and the accusation have become our staple prose genres.

Since being hired by The Post, my goal has been to promote experimental and innovative works, genre literature and underrated classics. It’s an awkward mix, especially in this day and age. Admittedly, artists of the past sometimes use language and display attitudes that we now rightly regret. But as Joe E. Brown pointed out at the end of “Some Like It Hot,” no one is perfect. One has to weigh Wagner’s music against his reprehensible anti-Semitism. You can choose never to listen to ‘Tristan und Isolde’, but you can’t deny its breathtaking beauty and profound influence. What is arguably Joseph Conrad’s greatest novella carries the “N word” in its title. How much does this matter? Each person should be given the opportunity to make his or her own decision about such things.

Does my tolerant laissez-faire view imply renunciation of combat duties in today’s vicious culture wars? Absolute. Don’t ask me to review fiction or nonfiction that covers the hot button topics of the moment. I’m not much of a journalist. Political tracts, bandwagon novels, celebrity biographies, self-help guides—these are the one-hit wonders of publishing. They enjoy a period of momentary buzz and a year later they can no longer be given away.

As I get older it gets darker memento mori aspect of my father’s wise advice has become increasingly urgent. That’s why I now want to revisit books that blew me away when I first reviewed them, be it Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”, Angela Carter’s “Wise Children”, Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” or AS Byatt’s “Possession” to be. But I also hope to fill some long-standing gaps on my lifelong reading list, starting with Lord Byron’s letters, Dorothy Dunnett’s swashbuckling “Lymond Chronicles” and Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene.” And did I mention the essays and rediscoveries I still want to write? Obviously, this is not the time to dawdle or slack. Forward!

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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