Andromeda/Your Turn: Why we read, do we need critics, and Michael Dirda's Sunday visit to Loussac Library

It’s been a good long time since we had a highly interactive post with lots of comments (that’s summer for you), and perhaps a rainy, autumnal day will give us this chance. But first, a reason for this discussion: Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post literary critic Michael Dirda will be at Loussac Library this Sunday at 4 pm, giving a talk, “READING MATTERS: How Books Can Change Your Life,” part of the library’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Dirda has written many books about his own reading life, including a memoir about his youth, An Open Book. According to Publishers Weekly, Dirda grew up in the Midwest as the only boy of four children. “He grew up in a blue-collar family with a ‘worried’ mother and a father who ‘hated his lot in life with every particle of his moody, dissatisfied soul.’ To escape from home life and his own ‘dissatisfied and restless’ feelings, the young Dirda sought solace in books, thus beginning a lifelong literary affair of unwavering intensity and curiosity.”

Dirda’s favorite authors, according to archived online discussions at the Washington Post, are “Stendhal, Chekhov, Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Nabokov, John Dickson Carr, Joseph Mitchell and Jack Vancen,” a mix of the intellectual and the humorous, plotty writers and high stylists. In response to a reader who wondered whether Dirda admired stylists too much as a book reviewer, Dirda responded, “I try to bear all the school-based aspects of reading in mind–theme, character, plot, etc. But style is the one that matters most to me, followed by wit and humor. In nonfiction I look for original scholarship, and really don’t care for the kind of potted stuff that makes the best seller list (e.g. How the Irish Saved Civlization). I’d rather read the scholars who are doing the real work. But this is me. I don’t say I’m right or wrong. I am, in some sense, an esthete, and I read for pleasure — my pleasure.”

That’s just enough to give us a taste of Dirda’s taste, with much more to come Sunday, I’m sure. Now I’d like to ask you two questions: Why do you read? Escapism, entertainment, the chance to experience other lives or learn about the wider world? And, in honor of Dirda’s visit: What do you think about the role of book reviews today? (With the folding of so many newspaper review sections, do you still seek out reviews? Prefer reader-style Amazon or Goodreads reviews to professional ones? Does it matter more or less on the local level? Do you read the reviews before or after you read the book?)

Chime in — and whether or not we hear from you, I hope you find time to help celebrate Loussac’s 25th anniversary.

Pertinent to this discussion, Sara Juday just shared this Poets & Writers article, “Back from the Dead: The State of Book Reviewing.” Looks long and thoughtful, and I do hope it’s hopeful. Good stuff about critics and book reviewing in the P&W “related reading” sidebar as well.

4 thoughts on “Andromeda/Your Turn: Why we read, do we need critics, and Michael Dirda's Sunday visit to Loussac Library”

  1. I've been reading and enjoying 49 Writers for over a year, but I haven't commented before, mainly because I live in what you might call the suburbs of Alaska: Montana. But I hate seeing so many good posts going un-commented on, so here goes.

    I read nonfiction to "converse" with intelligent people with similar interests (though not necessarily similar viewpoints). I know too few people like that in my everyday life. With fiction, I prefer books that deal with real life and its meaning or lack thereof, although I do like stylistic writers such as Nabokov for their use of language. Lolita proves a witty, artful style can overcome substance.

    I read professional book reviews, but with a grain of salt. I've often been disappointed in books whose reviews suggested I should have loved them and have loved books that got poor reviews. I actually do put more weight on the reviews on Amazon. I've found averaging the most helpful favorable and unfavorable reviews usually gives a pretty fair impression of what to expect. I'm more inclined to read the Amazon reviews before I read the book and the professional reviews afterward, but I'm weird.

  2. I read everything. Russian literature, pulpy noir crime fiction, Pulitzer winners, NPS draft plans, big books (Franzen's lauded Freedom at 561 pages) and tiny ones (Susan Barnes' Earthquake, quiet and 75 pages.) I've always been this way. I have favorites, of course, but there's hardly anything I won't read (low-bar chic lit and Dean Koontz-style stuff is my limit, though I've been known to read a crappy page-turner at a back-country cabin when I've gone through the old National Geographics…)

    I value book reviews from trusted sources, people I've read for years and know their tastes and literary angles somewhat speak to mine. The SF Chronicle has good ones, the NYT of course, and the occasional literary magazine (Bellingham Review has excellent ones.) I mostly appreciate reviews because they make a culture of reading. Not necessarily because I need to be told what to think or seek out, but because the more of us there are talking about books, the more chance there is for books to stay near the center of public life.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks Cliff and Anon–
    Both of you made mention of reading (the books themselves or the reviews) as a way to commune/converse with other intelligent minds, and I agree. Some of my favorite reviews are longer essays that begin with summary and critique, but then go further, comparing other books, or in New Yorker style pieces, becoming longer, meditative essays, even personal essays, on larher subjects — and often worth reading even if I don't plan to read any of the books mentioned. The pleasure in reading these reviews is equal to the pleasure in reading any real essay — following a mind as it twists and turns, considers and rejects (in that wonderful tradition first sketched-out by Montaigne). I prefer a writer arguing with himself/herself, producing meaning without simplification or even a necessary conclusion, to TV talking heads arguing with each other, asserting conclusions even before they discuss ideas, usually about things that don't matter in the first place.

  4. As a book reviewer for 20 years on public radio and in the local paper and professional journals, I think of my role as an enthusiast rather than a critic…someone people can rely on to be watching the book world, digging for treasures and shouting them out. This happens informally all the time, and is called hand-selling in bookstores, but there's no question that there is power in the media to get word out to more people. I love book reviews as notice of what's new and fresh. I am less interested in them as critiques of books. As someone who doesn't speak "English teacher" well…metaphors and literary allusion generally pass me right by….I find many reviews reach too far to be scholarly or prove a point of view. Just let me know if the book is a good read and what it's about and let me judge the rest. That said, I do gain a lot from talking to my book club friends who are English teachers about all the stuff I miss when I read LOL!

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