Book: Book by Book

Title: Book by Book
Author: Michael Dirda
Genre: Non-Fiction
Length: 192 pgs

It’s not often that I pick up a book about books, unless it has to do with writing them. As I consider myself a moderately well-read person, and at the very least a professional when it comes to leisure reading in general, I have generally ignored the books telling you what sort of books you should read. Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda, on the outset, seems like that sort of book. The one saying “If you want to be considered ____ and ____, then you must read this book!”

Actually, no, I lied. That is simply my assumption about books like this. Dirda’s book, however, is insightful. It immediately caught my attention because of the typesetting on its binding, and the antique, simple style of the front cover. Marketing at its finest–I was obviously the demographic for this book. It starts out with a series of quotes that Dirda, a Pulitzer prize winner for criticism, collected in his personal journal. The chapters in this book cover everything from suggested books for a guest room library, to books you should read if you do indeed want to be considered well-read, to general thoughts on why we have become a nation of people who have one pigeon-hole for work, and one for leisure, when at one point, your work was your leisure. You were a milliner because you were good at it, and it was a challange to you. Same as metallurgy. Etc.

Excerpts:

Jean Cocteau – What others criticize you for, cultivate: It is you.

Michel Foucault – The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The fame is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.

Isaiah Berlin – Decent respect for others and the toleration of dissent is better than pride and a sense of national mission; that liberty may be incompatible with, and better than, too much efficiency; that pluralism and untidiness are, to those who value freedom, better than the rigorous imposition of all embracing systems, no matter how rational and disinterested.

Dirda-isms . . .
pg 18 – Men and women who read and study and learn may go temporarily astray, but then can never be completely lost. Knowledge isn’t only its own reward; it gives us maps through the wilderness, instruments to guide our progress, and the confidence that no matter where we are we will always be, fundamentally, at home.

pg 136 – Most of the ancient Greek thinkers believed that one should aspire to a life of reason, and that ataraxia, a tranquil indifference to the world’s vicissitudes, was the state of mind most worth cultivating. And yet it’s hard not to wonder if untroubled serenity is really appropriate for human beings. Isn’t there a point when too much self-mastery leads to a drying up of the inner self and the springs of sympathy?
Dirda mourns the backseat reading has taken in recent years, and how, if your favorite book is something along the lines of…let’s say, a work by Albert Camus, Alexandre Dumas, or (shock!!) Jane Austen, you almost feel ashamed to admit as much to your not-as-literary friends simply because it isn’t on the best-seller list and therefore probably not something they would even know or care to know about.

If you love books, read this one. Dirda’s love shines through on the page, and by the end of the book, you not only feel like you’ve found a new friend, but you feel that you’re not alone in a visually-driven, technology-obsessed era.