Friday, July 20, 2007

Bound to Please (thoughts)

I've a sneaking suspicion that Michael Dirda is a bit of an ass. Why? First, it's that he subtitled his book "An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education." And then, well, it's sentences like this....

"By 'literary' reading, the NEA report means almost any work that isn't a textbook or business report. So the category embraces mysteries, chick-lit, adventure novels, westerns, fantasy and science ficion, spy thrillers, possibly even children's books (this isn't clear). In short, almost everthing. Now, although I enjoy trolling in nearly all of fiction's genres-even, on occasion, checking out Harlequin romances, whose fans probably account for most of the people who get through a dozen or more titles a year-I still don't think of these books as, for the most part, serious reading, as literary reading." (xxiv)
-Note the snide remark that most reading Americans must be addicted to Harlequin-

"But those who really care about literature nearly always sit down with a pencil in their hands, to underline, mark favorite passages, argue in the margins." (xxiv)
-Note the charming assumption that if I don't like to disfigure my books, I don't love them-

"Who now among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly "edgy"? (xxv)
-My favourite assumption from older people: since I'm young, I don't value culture-

"Come the dawn, though, and our good intentions usually evaporate. Why persist with Plutarch or George Eliot or Beckett or William Gaddis when you can drop into a chat room or line up at the multiplex for this week's timeless Hollywood blockbuster?...Instead of actually reading Tocqueville or Henry Adams, we just check out the latest blogs." (xxvi)

That was just the prologue. He also sometimes appends 'postscripts' to his reviews that usually highlight how special Dirda is. For example,
"I still reread The Unquiet Grace every year or two and, even though I recognize its occasional sentimentality and period flavor, continue to find it a mirror to my own heart." (483)

Throughout the actual reviews (culled from almost three decades of the WP Book World) runs the sentiment that Dirda, unlike the 'common' reader, can appreciate the true value of literature. Through his writing, he hopes to raise us uninspired masses into a place where we can bask in his literary glow. Dirda's one of those people who uses 'should' and 'ought' quite often.

Best of all, Dirda is a hypocrite. Towards the end of the book, he includes an essay he wrote on education. Among the prentensious claims and ponderous delivery, he argues for multiculturalism, with sentences like "Our schools should introduce young people to the world's cultural richness and variety..." (505) and "Schools really should take pains to include more work by women." (506) And yet, in a book that has exactly 500 pages devoted to 110 reviews, would you like to know how many authors Dirda looks at who are not from the US or Europe? 3: 1001 Nights, Borges, and de Assis (Brazilian). He also deigns to include 4 women authors to 'balance out' the 106 men. This in a book that claims to provide to any reader a "one-volume literary education." Well, I guess Dirda can always fall back on that well-worn classic: do as I say, not as I do.

So, needless to say, Dirda is not someone I would ever want to run into at a cocktail party. Unlike Nick Hornby (see my effusions on The Polysyllabic Spree, another collection of previously-published reviews), Dirda represents, to me, everything that's wrong about literary criticism.

That being said, I'm glad I read this book, and I'll probably read his other collections of reviews. Why? Quite simple, because he has a comparative literature background and has been reviewing books for longer than I've been alive. The book was a great resource for new (European, male) authors. I have a list as long as my arm.

So, while Dirda and I are certainly not kindred spirits, I'll tolerate his pretensions in order to be introduced to new authors. Of course, as a common reader, I'm obviously unable to appreciate books with the same depth as Dirda. But at least I spend my time with my nose in a book, and not upturned at the rest of the population.


Imani said...

Oh, this gave me the funniest idea. I'll start adding quaint postcripts to my "reviews" on my blog. They'll be more along the lines of "Every time I go to the chain book store I like to browse the erotic lit section. Just because!"

Harold Bloom has a similar fondness for the words "should" and "ought" so I avoid his writings.

Gentle Reader said...

Hee hee hee, I giggled when I read this post. I have a feeling Michael Dirda is a bit of an ass, too. But that's not to say I'm not going to read my copy of Book By Book. Though I'm sure I'll feel condescended to throughout...

litlove said...

Very interesting, Eva, as I'd been wondering whether to read anything or not by Michael Dirda, and now I think, probably not. I'm going to head off towards Elizabeth Hardwick instead!

Sarah said...

You know, I bought one of Dirda's books and was sooo excited to read it, but his tone made me cranky from the get-go. So, like you, I'll read him in order to get new titles/authors, but I really don't appreciate his elitism. Hornby, on the other hand, is fantastic all the way around (and when I worked at a bookstore I got to hear him speak--he's great in person as well!).