Transcripts

Bookend: Book Critic Michael Dirda Shares Reading Habits

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
And now it's time for "Bookend," our monthly conversation about the Washington area's literary scene. To close out the year, we thought we'd do something a little bit different, and turn from authors to critics, in this case, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda of the Washington Post, and the New York Review of Books. Jonathan Wilson talked with the so-called best-read man in America about what he reads on a cold winter's night, and how he suggests we might bust out of our literary comfort zone.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:33
So when you were majoring in English, and then going to grad school for comparative literature, you were, I imagine, you know, thinking of, you know, my career will be as a professor. Before you started reviews, had you thought about that as a possibility?

MR. MICHAEL DIRDA

00:00:47
Never. I didn't work for any newspapers in college, never worked for any newspaper before The Washington Post. And I read the reviews, and I studied them, and figured out how I thought it was done, and then started practicing. I've always liked an easygoing colloquial style. I like the kind of reviewer who is essentially a fellow reader, an enthusiast, a fan. I think, you know, here's something I've read, and here's why I think it's fun, and why I like it, here are some quotes to give you sense of what it's like, and if this sounds something like the kind of book you would like, give it a try. This is basically my attitude, along with urging people to read beyond the bestseller lists, to read beyond genre barriers, boundaries, to explore the literature of the past, as well as just the literature of right now.

WILSON

00:01:44
Are you able to read strictly for pleasure? I mean, when was the last time you were able to read a book, knowing, I do not have to write about this book. Or is that something that you do?

DIRDA

00:01:54
I haven't read for pleasure in 35 years. I mean, I get a lot of pleasure from what I read, but there were a few years when I would read at Christmas time, and, you know, I would have a break, a holiday, and I would read John Dickson Carr's locked room mysteries, I read one or two every year for several years. I'm very fond of golden age mysteries, the classic whodunit puzzles. But even in that case, after I read a half a dozen of them, friends of mine, Robin Winks and Maureen Corrigan were doing a big book on crime writers. And so I ended up writing a 6 or 7,000 word essay on the novels of John Dickson Carr, so even that pleasure reading was ultimately used for work.

DIRDA

00:02:37
For me, it somehow -- it's gotten so that it doesn't seem as though I've read a book unless I've written about it. It really seems the completion of the reading process.

WILSON

00:02:45
I'd love to hear some of the best things that you've read recently, whether it be just from this year, or even, as you've pointed out, you love to read books from the past that maybe have gone underappreciated. Could you give our listeners a few recommendations?

DIRDA

00:03:00
Well, if you follow me on any of the places I write, you'll see I've written about all kinds of books, but my most recent book was a book about Arthur Conan Doyle called On Conan Doyle, it won the Edgar Award this past year, in which I urge people to read things beyond Sherlock Holmes. But I also urge them, if they've never read Sherlock Holmes stories, if they're only seen Robert Downey Junior or Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, the stories are wonderful, and Conan Doyle himself is a terrific writer.

DIRDA

00:03:33
Just last week in the Post I reviewed a superb biography of a painter, Titian, by Sheila Hale, but my urge at Christmas time, or Hanukkah-time, or Kwanzaa-time, is that people go to bookstores, that they walk around bookstores and look at the shelves. Go to look for authors that they've loved in the past and see what else those authors have written. Look what other books are similar to that, actually physically encounter the books. Not only even new books, you go to used books shops. Or I suppose you can do some of this online, but do not just go with what everyone is reading.

DIRDA

00:04:11
You know, it always annoys me when certain books become the book, and everybody in the world gives, you know, "The Da Vinci Code" for a gift, when there are many better books, of that sort even, than "The Da Vinci Code." People need to make choosing their books a pleasure. What better than to go spend an afternoon at Politics & Prose, or Second Story Books, or even the Barnes & Noble outlets, however you feel about Barnes & Noble, at least they're a physical presence in our city, and they do provide a chance to look at the books.

DIRDA

00:04:51
And so that's what I think is important.

WILSON

00:04:54
All right. Well, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda, thank you for joining us, and happy holidays.

DIRDA

00:04:59
Thank you, Jonathan.

SHEIR

00:05:03
To hear Jonathan Wilson's entire interview with Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, and to learn why Dirda is still resisting getting an e-reader, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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