The Paris Review once published a story about Silver Spring resident Michael Dirda, who has been writing book reviews for The Washington Post since 1977. The headline on the 2012 piece: “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 the highest honors in English, he earned a doctorate in literature from Cornell. While working for The Washington Post, he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism 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 committed to the Conan Doyle-Sherlock Holmes canon.
Dirda lives in a brick colonial in Woodside Park with his wife, Marian, who retired from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; Nathaniel, 31, the youngest of their three sons; and some 15,000 books. We spoke several times, mostly in his backyard, in August and September.
What was your childhood like?
I come from a very blue-collar background. My father was a steelworker. He quit school just short of [turning] 16 when his father died. My mother was from a family of 10; her father died when she was little. My father 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 40-odd years, hated it.
I was envious of my hunting, fishing cousins. My specialty was school. My mother taught me to read when I was 4. My father never read a book in his life, but he would buy books at book sales and build bookcases. He had ambitions for his children, and my three younger sisters all became teachers.
Of 588 in my graduating class, some 20 went to college. I wasn’t sure I’d go. Senior year, my first six-week grade in English was a D, but I scored phenomenally well on the college boards. I wrote Oberlin a letter, saying I had really mixed grades, no money, but give me a scholarship and one day you’ll be really proud of me. They got all their money back in tuition when my son Mike went there. I graduated in 1970. Jesse Jackson was the speaker. We all wore armbands, and there were a lot of raised fists. My father was so irate, he walked out of the ceremony, never saw me graduate.
How did you become a book reviewer?
I met my wife at Oberlin. She had 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 went by. [Then] I was asked if I could review In the Suicide Mountains by John Gardner. The book was waiting for me when I came home from work. I read the book that night, spent the whole next day writing 200 words on my Hermes 3000 portable typewriter until they were perfect. Bill gave me more reviews, then asked if I might be interested in a job. My official starting date was May 1, 1978.
Do you enjoy reading?
I haven’t read for pleasure since I was 16. I get pleasure in what I read, but I don’t get pleasure from reading. Everything I’m reading, I’m reading for a purpose: I’m going to write about it or it’s for research. There’s 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’m a very, very slow reader. I move my lips when I read. It takes me forever to read a novel. One compensation is I have a very good memory for what I’ve read.
How do you choose which books to review?
I’m an aesthete at heart. I like pretty prose, elegant thinking, works of cultural history and literary biography. But I also like pulp fiction, adventure stories, old titles deserving rediscovery. In general, I prefer fantasy to realism. From week to week, I try hard to offer a smorgasbord to readers, though I steer away from politics and civic affairs—those kinds of books date really quickly.
Do you prefer reading on a tablet or from a bound book?
Physical books have character. Books on a screen don’t have the same kind of uniqueness. The Maltese Falcon looks like Henry James’ The Ambassadors or anything else. On 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, look at. I like the company of books.
How is reviewing as a career?
Reviewing books is not merely a career, it’s the real passion of my life [and] what, I think, I’m good at. I want to tell people about all the wonderful books they might not have heard of, about books not in the news, not fashionable or trendy. I want people to expand their horizons. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to avoid writing about any book that might become a bestseller. I avoid writing negative reviews whenever I can. I try to keep in mind, even terrible books are hard to write.
What’s 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 your comfort zone. Don’t read bestsellers. Look for something else in the bookstore. Occasionally try a book of poetry. There are such wonderful books published by small, indie, university presses. They usually have no publicity at all; they have no budgets for it. And they get few reviews. That’s why I write about what people tell me are seemingly strange, arcane books.
Tell us about your library.
I don’t refer to it as my library. I refer to it as my horde of treasure. Or Aladdin’s cave of wonders. It’s 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 bookcases. The rest are in boxes, on metal shelves, and in stacks. It looks like utter chaos. During the pandemic, I gave away, 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 end of the 19th century into the early 20th. I’ll be covering H.G. Wells and early science fiction, the rivals of Sherlock Holmes, swashbucklers such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda, thrillers, lost-world romances, ghost stories and classic children’s books. My aim is to encourage readers to rediscover some wonderful books of the past.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.