Monday, August 29, 2011

Michael Dirda On The Importance of Books

Michael Dirda likes books.  He has, he said, since he sat on his mom's lap while she read to his four year old self. 

He likes them so much, he reads for food.  As a book reviewer for the Washington Post. 

After speaking at the UAA Convocation Friday (I think), he spoke at the Marston Auditorium at the Loussac Library as part of the 25th Anniversary of the current Loussac library. (When Loussac gave his books to start the Anchorage library, as I recall the story, the agreement included his name going on the main library building, even if it changed, which it has done several times.)  Wilda Marston, who was the key champion of building the new (25 year old) Loussac library, was in the audience, in the room named in her honor. 

I've never heard of Dirda before (yes, I'm just an Anchorage hick), but he'd be someone I'd enjoy going to dinner with - I know that after hearing the talk and getting to talk to him briefly at the reception in the Ann Stevens room. As he spoke of his childhood libraries, I thought of myself walking home from the library as a kid, with a stack of books to my chin.  And I remember the many libraries in my life fondly. 

But I'm not quite as into books as Dirda.  He said he had 15 or 25 thousand books.  I'm opposed to having so many 'things' in general.   Even books.  The library has them all.  And he said, in answer to a question about paper books versus electronic books, that he felt the screen versions somehow seemed to be too distracting, that he fears people won't read them as deeply.  He didn't get specific here - mostly his feelings on this.  It certainly is easier to be distracted by an incoming email or to see who just entered Skype, but people of all technologies have lamented what would be lost by the ones replacing them.  I've had plenty of students who couldn't get deep into their paper medium assignments.  And more important, different people connect to different media.  Dirda is clearly a book reader.  But lots of kids get stoked on other ways to connect to the rest of the world.  Yes, books are different, feel different, and the seeking out of them takes us to bookstores and libraries that have a special smell and sanctuary like quality.  But I'm not sure how much of that mystique is related to "the book"  and how much simply to his (and my) childhood experiences.  And today's generation will have similar nostalgia for their Kindles and iPads and reading them in coffee shops. 

I was sitting in the back of the auditorium and couldn't ask my question.  Fortunately, someone closer, asked it:  How did his relationships with authors impact his ability to review their books?  He said he tries not to become friends with too many authors because he cannot review their books if he does.  At the reception, he added that writing his memoirs past his early life is difficult because it is hard to write about living people - an invasion of privacy.  He changed names, for instance, or skipped over, old girlfriends, because they may not appreciate having their relationship with him revealed so publicly.  I know that some writers feel their 'art' is above all other values, but I lean with Dirda on this.  Our relationships are more important. 

I've since looked at some of his writing.  (I tried to find reviews of books I've read, but I couldn't find a list online, and googling Dirda with the names of books I could think of wasn't yielding results.) (I did find such a page, but the links to the next pages didn't work for me.) His writing is honest, thoughtful, and rich, yet kind.  (He'd said that at the Post he'd start books and if they didn't work for him, he'd pawn them off - my phrasing, not his - to someone else to review.  "Why read books I don't like?"  And so the vast majority of his reviews are positive.)

He's headed out of town for a little Alaska sightseeing.  So you folks in Seward and Homer and parts in between, he might be eating at the restaurant table nearby or checking out your library in the next few days.  

By the way, one of the people most responsible for bringing Dirda to Alaska, Dean of UAA's Honor College and editor of Alaska's nationally recognized literary journal The Alaska Quarterly, Ron Spatz, was prominently interviewed on the National Endowment for the Arts blog Art Works in July.

1 comment:

  1. How time goes by... Today, one year ago, we met. It was a day to remember. Saludos, Steve.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.