Michael Dirda defends book criticism

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Growing up, my father—always anxious to teach his backward son—regularly intoned the phrase, “I’ll only pass this path once.” Since Dad cared for no one outside of our extended family, he never quoted the rest of the old Quaker Proverb: “Every good thing I can do, or every kindness I can show to a man; Let me do it now.” No, he was just saying not to procrastinate on things because I think I’ll get to that later.

To my surprise, without my knowing exactly how, this fatherly advice became the enduring principle of my professional life as a writer and reviewer—at least until recently. I’ve certainly returned to a handful of authors several times over the years, most notably twin monsters Evelyn Waugh and Vladimir Nabokov, but in general I never expected to read anything again. I do my best on each book or subject and then move on to something new.

What bookstores and literary life contribute to… life

Still, I often recall with guilt Oscar Wilde’s pointing out that if a book isn’t worth reading over and over, then it shouldn’t be read at all. This is essentially an aesthetic stance, the approach of a connoisseur – or, sadder, the fate of a college professor bound to teach Milton for the next 40 years. But since my youth I have wanted to experience as many books as possible, to familiarize myself with the best that has ever been thought and said, as Matthew Arnold says. It should be emphasized that “the best” to me means the best in every genre, not just the traditional classics of world literature.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to question the relentless, endless rush of my life. Each week I get used to three or four days of frenetically intense reading and research while trying to feel reasonably competent to say something halfway interesting about a novel, biography, or scholarly work. To use an irresistible oxymoron, the first drafts I then scribble almost always strike me as deeply superficial, neglecting the author, the book, the lucky few who make up my “audience,” and even myself to let. At this point I begin to wonder how I got into this business in the first place. No doubt some Post readers are also speculating about this. Still, the next morning I pull myself together and go through my draft literally dozens of times, adding details, sharpening my so-called thoughts, condensing the thin prose, and working hard to make everything sound light and friendly.

At the end, as my deadline nears, I write every Thursday column with a miserably gloomy feeling and wishing it were better. In truth, tenacity—my only gift from the gods—can accomplish so much. If only I had gotten another 20 points for my IQ! If only I hadn’t fallen down the basement stairs at the age of 2 and smashed my head – my father later told me that I was a pretty bright little kid up until then. Being all too aware of my writing shortcomings, I never torture myself further by looking at the online comments on my essays and reviews.

Flashy crime novels are not for me. Here’s what I would pick instead.

Of course, “the unspeakable horror of the literary life” – to borrow Mr. Earbrass’ phrase from Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp – is a familiar threnody in the writing business. Still, to use one of my own favorite phrases, hour after hour, week after week, I keep struggling, poking around at sentences in hopes of making them better. Of course, every professional writer is extremely fortunate, even blessed. What we do for a living would hardly be considered work by most people around the world. My hands and clothes are clean at the end of the day.

At least the evening brings a glass of beer or wine, along with some Jarlsberg cheese and crackers. The beginning of the day is a different matter. Every morning when I look at the newspaper, I murmur to myself: Why bother? Does anyone really care about books in these depressing and violent times? Obviously some people have to, and yet passion for reading today seems vaguely quaint, while being ‘literal’ or ‘scholarly’ verges on an insult and suggests a slightly silly, even elitist, unworldliness. Finally, books emphasize inwardness, encourage empathy, encourage thought, and are intended to encourage rational argument and dissent. Good luck with those at a time when screed and charge have become our staple prose genres.

Ever since I was hired by The Post, my goal has been to promote experimental and innovative works, genre fiction and underappreciated classics. It’s a troubled mix, especially these days. Admittedly, artists of the past sometimes use language and display attitudes that we rightly regret today. But as Joe E. Brown observed 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 might choose never to hear “Tristan und Isolde,” but you can’t deny its breathtaking beauty and profound influence. Perhaps Joseph Conrad’s greatest novella has the “N-word” in its title. How important is that? Everyone should be allowed to make their own decisions about such things.

Does my tolerant, laissez-faire attitude mean I shirk combat duty in today’s vicious culture wars? Absolutely. Don’t ask me to review fiction or non-fiction that deals with the hot topics of the moment. I’m not that much of a journalist. Political tracts, catch-your-owner novels, celebrity biographies, self-help guides—these are the ephemera of publishing. They enjoy a period of short-lived enthusiasm and a year later cannot be gifted.

As I got older, the darker memento mori aspect of my father’s wise advice seems more and more urgent. So now I want to revisit books that blew me away when I first reviewed them, whether Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, or AS Byatt’s Possession “. But I also hope to fill in some longstanding gaps in my lifelong reading list, beginning 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? This is clearly not the time to dally or slack off. Continue!

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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