More than half a century ago, the critic Clifton Fadiman predicted the death of the essay, a form he thought would be too genteel for a fast-moving, anxious age. Fadiman was famous in the 1950s for his mastery of the form: He wrote cheerfully bracing essays on everything from cheese to Shakespeare, suburbia to Faulkner, mathematics to French wine. He died in 1999 but would no doubt be gratified to know that, in the hands of Michael Dirda, this literary tradition is alive and well.
By Michael Dirda
Pegasus, 246 pages, $24.95
In “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books,” Mr. Dirda, who mentions Fadiman on his dedication page, strikes a Fadimanesque tone—smart but not stuffy, critical but not carping, self-engaged but not self-absorbed. His intellect is also a brightly populated curio cabinet, containing topics as varied as Samuel Johnson’s cat, the art of the perfect book title, the decline of penmanship and the distress of writer’s block. Although the book indulges in occasional shop talk about the craft of writing, it is foremost a running record of pleasure. Mr. Dirda argues in these essays, drawn from a yearlong column about reading that he wrote for the American Scholar, “that we don’t read for high-minded reasons. We read for aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual excitement.”
Publishing oddities flutter through the pages of “Browsings” like tropical birds: Frans G. Bengtsson’s “The Long Ships,” which he lauds as a “surprisingly witty saga of Viking exploits”; “The Fools in Town Are on Our Side,” a crime thriller by Ross Thomas, recognized here as “a neglected classic of its genre”; and the November 1950 edition of Startling Stories, notable for a cover with “a Salome-like dancer being ogled by shady-looking aliens.” Mr. Dirda has all these titles, plus thousands more, in a personal library as crowded as Noah’s ark.
In perhaps the book’s best essay, “Then and Now,” Mr. Dirda celebrates his book habit as something more than mere acquisition. Returning to the “down-at-heels steeltown” of his Ohio youth, he stays a few nights in his childhood bedroom, where late-night reading gave him his first real sense of a larger world. “As my father used to say: ‘Live fast,’ ” he writes. “In fact, I’ve lived slow, dithered and dallied, taken my own sweet time, and done pretty much what I’ve repeatedly done ever since my mother first taught me to read so long ago: Found a quiet spot and opened a book.”
Mr. Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer for the Washington Post, is an engaging storyteller, but he is not, by his own admission, a flashy one. “If only I had a flair for striking similes and metaphors! Alas, nothing ever reminds me of anything else,” he writes. Newspaper writing, he adds, has strengthened his natural tendency toward plainness. In lieu of vividness, Mr. Dirda gives his readers intimacy: “I like a piece to sound as if it were dashed off in 15 minutes—even when hours might have been spent in contriving just the right degree of airiness and nonchalance.”
As the author demonstrated in “Classics for Pleasure,” his 2007 survey of the Western canon, he can expertly parse tough books, such as Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” or Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” But he has a soft spot for period adventure yarns, such as Baroness Orczy’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel” or E. Nesbit’s “The Story of the Amulet.” Although these antiquarian page-turners aren’t the kind of literature generally embraced by the academy, Mr. Dirda found a receptive audience for them when he used the novels to teach a class at the University of Maryland. “Students said that it reminded them of why they had majored in English: not because they could hardly wait to read the latest in literary theory, but because they loved stories.”
Making essays look so easy naturally tempts the reader to dismiss them as not too special. But Mr. Dirda’s musings are an invitation to generosity. What he advises about the best way to read is also an apt description of how he thinks: “Go on—be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly, unashamedly promiscuous.”
—Mr. Heitman, a columnist with the Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”