"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,
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.