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Bookend: Book Critic Michael Dirda Shares Reading Habits

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The Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda
Jonathan Wilson
The Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda

To close out the year, we thought we'd do something a little different, and turn from local authors to perhaps the city's most prominent book critic, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda of the Washington Post, and the New York Review of Books, just to name a few. Jonathan Wilson talked with the man often known as "the best-read man in America," at his home in Silver Spring. Following are highlights of their conversation.

On how he approached his first reviews at The Washington Post 35 years ago:

"I didn't work for any newspapers in college, never worked for any newspaper before The Washington Post. I read the reviews, and studied them, and figured out how I thought it was done, and 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, 'Here's something I've read, and here's why I think it's fun, 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."

On reading for fun:

"I haven't read for pleasure in 35 years. I mean, I get a lot of pleasure from what I read... For me, 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."

Holiday book recommendations:

"My own most recent book was a book about Arthur Conan Doyle called On Conan Doyle, which won the Edgar Award this 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, the stories are wonderful, and Holmes himself is a terrific writer."

"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 - that they actually physically encounter the books... I suppose you can do some of this online, but do not just go with what everyone else is reading. It always annoys me when certain books become THE book, and everybody in the world give 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 provide a chance to look at the books."

[Music: "Frost Bit" by Mello Music Group from Odd Seasons / "I Could Write a Book" by The Glendon Smith Quartet from Gourmet Jazz]

Listen to the full interview here:

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