The Paris review once published a story about Silver Spring resident Michael Dirda, who has written book reviews for the Washington Post since 1977. The title of the 2012 article: “Book Shopping with the Best-Read Man in America.”
Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, Dirda was the first in his family to go to college. After graduating from Oberlin in 1970 with highest honors in English, he earned a doctorate in literature from Cornell. While working for the Washington Post, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Critics in 1993. His reviews continue to appear weekly. He is also the author of several books, including his 2003 memoir An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland and 2011’s On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, which won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in the Best Critical/Biographical category. Dirda is an invested member of the exclusive Baker Street Irregulars, a literary group attached to the Conan Doyle-Sherlock Holmes canon.
Dirda lives in a brick colonial house in Woodside Park with his wife, Marian, who retired from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; Nathaniel, 31, the youngest of their three sons; and some 15,000 pounds. We spoke several times, mainly in his garden, in August and September.
How was your childhood?
I come from a very working class background. My father was a steelworker. He left school just before [turning] 16 when his father died. My mother was from a family of 10; her father died when she was little. My dad served in the South Pacific in the Navy and was torpedoed twice. His best friend was killed. He wouldn’t talk about it. He went back to the steel mill for about forty years, he hated it.
I was jealous of my hunter and fisherman cousins. My specialty was school. My mother taught me to read when I was 4 years old. My father never read a book in his life, but he bought books at book sales and built libraries. He had ambitions for his children and my three younger sisters all became teachers.
Of 588 in my graduating class, about 20 went on to college. I wasn’t sure to go there. In my final year, my first six-week grade in English was a D, but I performed phenomenally on college boards. I wrote a letter to Oberlin, saying I had very mixed grades, no money, but give me a scholarship and one day you’ll be really proud of me. They got all their tuition money back when my son Mike went. I graduated in 1970. Jesse Jackson was the speaker. We were all wearing armbands and there were a lot of raised fists. My dad was so pissed he walked out of the ceremony, he never saw me graduate.
How did you become a literary critic?
I met my wife in Oberlin. She did an internship at the National Gallery. I had offers to teach elsewhere. She wanted to stay here, so I got a job writing technical manuals for a computer company. I thought computers were a passing phase, but newspapers would be here forever. I wrote a letter to [Washington Post Book World Editor] Bill McPherson. He liked my letter and called me. He said, we’ll send you a book one of these days. Months have passed. [Then] I was asked if I could rewatch John Gardner’s In the Suicide Mountains. The book was waiting for me when I got home from work. I read the book that night, spent the next day writing 200 words on my Hermes 3000 portable typewriter until they were perfect. Bill gave me other advice, then asked if I might be interested in a job. My official start date was May 1, 1978.
Do you like reading?
I haven’t read for fun since I was 16. I enjoy reading, but I don’t enjoy reading. Everything I read, I read it for a purpose: I’m going to write about it or it’s for research. There is always an ulterior motive. It’s not like when you’re a kid, you read one Batman comic after another. My job is to read books and write about them. I am a very, very slow reader. I move my lips when I read. It takes me forever to read a novel. A compensation is that I have a very good memory for what I read.
How do you choose the books to review?
I am an esthete at heart. I like pretty prose, elegant thought, works of cultural history and literary biography. But I also like pulp fiction, adventure stories, old titles that deserve to be rediscovered. In general, I prefer fantasy to realism. From week to week, I try to offer readers an assortment, even if I stray from politics and civic affairs – these kinds of books date very quickly.
Prefer to read on a tablet or from a hardcover book?
Physical books have character. Books on a screen don’t have the same kind of uniqueness. The Maltese Falcon looks like Henry James’s The Ambassadors or anything else. On the screen, you are just absorbing information. The kids gave me a Kindle. I gave it to my wife. I feel like a dinosaur. I just like books as an object. They are fun to hold, to look at. I love the company of books.
How is the exam going as a career?
Editing books isn’t just a career, it’s my life’s true passion. [and] what, I think, I’m good. I want to tell people about all the wonderful books they might not have heard of, books that aren’t in the news, that aren’t trending, or that aren’t trending. I want people to broaden their horizons. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to avoid writing about a book that might become a bestseller. I avoid writing negative reviews whenever I can. I try to keep in mind that even terrible books are hard to write.
What is your advice to a casual reader?
When people ask me, “What should I read?” I ask, “What do you like?” I tell them to read outside of your comfort zone. Don’t read bestsellers. Look for something else in the bookstore. Try a book of poetry once in a while. There are such wonderful books published by small independent university presses. They usually have no advertising; they don’t have a budget for that. And they receive few reviews. That’s why I write about what people tell me are seemingly weird and mysterious books.
Tell us about your library.
I don’t call it my library. I call it my treasure trove. Or Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders. This is not beautiful. It’s not like Trinity College in Dublin. There is no database, but I know what I have. Sometimes finding a particular book is a problem. Five to 10% are in libraries. The rest is in boxes, on metal shelves and in piles. It looks like total chaos. During the pandemic, I donated, sold or traded 200 boxes. It seems to have made no difference.
I’m writing The Great Age of Storytelling, an appreciation of British adventure fiction from the late 19th to early 20th century. I’ll cover HG Wells and early science fiction, rivals to Sherlock Holmes, swordsmen such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda, thrillers, lost world novels, ghost stories and classic books for children. My goal is to inspire readers to rediscover wonderful books from the past.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.