An Open Book, Michael Dirda, W W Norton & Company Inc, 2003, 322 pp
I read an inordinate amount of book reviews, partly because books are my passion and partly because I have come to be known as the "fiction expert" at the bookstore where I work and try to keep up on what's new and good. I have my likes and dislikes when it comes to reviews so I was pleased to discover a reviewer whom I could respect and even emulate.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize winning critic who writes for The Washington Post, one of the few remaining American newspapers that has a dedicated book review section. The Washington Post also employs another of my favorite authors and reviewers, Carolyn See. In an effort to improve my own reviewing skills and develop my own voice as a reviewer, I decided to study the experts.
An Open Book is Dirda's memoir of the reading life and the story of how he became a critic. I came away from this book with an image of a complete book nerd. I love book nerds. I am one. Dirda grew up in Lorain, Ohio (also the home of Toni Morrison), son of second generation immigrants: a Russian father and Slovakian mother. They were poor but literate and Michael was read to by his mother from a small collection of Golden Books, as was I.
He became the reader of the family, read indiscriminately from an early age, loved the little local library located in an old house and suffered from being accused of having his nose in a book all through his childhood. This is like a male version of me (he was born just a year after I was), except that his family was blue collar and mine was white collar middle class. I went to college all expenses paid by my parents and dropped out by junior year. Michael went on scholarship, worked hard and actually got an education.
Though there were some dull parts which dragged for me, though Mr Dirda has a careful, controlled style of writing, I was quite taken by his story. It has a bit of Elmer Gantry, a touch of Charles Dickens and a lot of the passion of someone who followed what he loved and figured out how to make it his life's work. He has also published two collections of his criticism, another volume about reading and of course, you can read his weekly reviews at washingtonpost.com.