Michael Dirda defends book criticism

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When I was growing up, my father — always eager to instruct his backward son — would regularly intone the phrase, “I shall pass this way but once.” Since Dad wasn’t one to care about anybody outside our extended family, he never quoted the rest of the old Quaker proverb: “Any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now.” No, he simply meant that I shouldn’t put things off, imagining that I’d come back to them at some later date.

To my surprise, this paternal advice became, without my quite knowing how, the abiding principle of my professional life as a writer and reviewer — at least until recently. Over the years I’ve certainly returned several times to a handful of writers, most prominently those twin monsters, Evelyn Waugh and Vladimir Nabokov, but in general I’ve never counted on rereading anything. I give each book or subject my best, then move on to something new.

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Still, I often guiltily recall Oscar Wilde pointing out that if a book wasn’t worth reading over and over again, it shouldn’t be read at all. That’s essentially an aesthetic attitude, the approach of a connoisseur — or, more sadly, the fate of a college professor locked into teaching Milton for the next 40 years. But since adolescence, I’ve wanted to experience as many books as possible, to familiarize myself with, as Matthew Arnold’s catchphrase goes, the best that has been thought and said. It should be emphasized that, for me, the “best” means the best in every genre, not just the traditional classics of world literature.

Lately, however, I’ve begun to question my life’s relentless, unending hustle. Each week I settle into three or four days of frenetically intense reading and research, as I try to make myself feel mildly competent to say something halfway interesting about a novel, biography or work of scholarship. The initial drafts I then scribble almost always strike me as — to use an irresistible oxymoron — deeply superficial, shortchanging the author, the book, the happy few who constitute my “audience,” and even myself. At that point I begin to wonder how I ever got into this business in the first place. No doubt some Post readers speculate about this, too. Still, the next morning I pull myself together and go through my draft literally dozens of times, adding detail, sharpening my so-called thoughts, thickening the thin prose and laboring hard to make it all sound easygoing and friendly.

In the end, as my deadline looms, I file each Thursday column feeling pathetically gloomy and wishing it were better. In truth, doggedness — my sole gift from the gods — can accomplish just so much. If only I’d been allotted another 20 points to my IQ! If only I hadn’t tumbled down the basement steps when I was 2 and cracked my head — my father later told me that I’d seemed quite a bright little kid till then. Being all too aware of my authorial shortcomings, I never torture myself further by looking at the online comments about my essays and reviews.

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Of course, “the unspeakable horror of the literary life” — to borrow Mr. Earbrass’s phrase from Edward Gorey’s “The Unstrung Harp” — is a familiar threnody in the writing biz. Still, to use one of my own favorite expressions, I soldier on, hour after hour, week after week, poking at sentences in the hopes of making them better. Of course, any professional writer is supremely lucky, even blessed. What we do for a living most people around the world would hardly think of as work. My hands and clothes are clean at the end of the day.

At least the evening does bring a glass of beer or wine, along with some Jarlsberg cheese and crackers. The beginning of the day is another matter. Every morning when I glance at the paper, I murmur to myself: Why bother? Does anybody in these depressing and violent times really care about books? Obviously, some people must, and yet today a passion for reading seems vaguely quaint, while to be called “bookish” or “learned” verges on an insult, suggesting a slightly ditsy, even elitist unworldliness. After all, books emphasize interiority, encourage empathy, require thought, and are meant to foster rational argument and dissent. Good luck with those in an age when the screed and the accusation have become our basic prose genres.

Ever since being hired by The Post, I’ve aimed to champion experimental and innovative works, genre literature and undervalued classics. It’s an uneasy mix, especially these days. Admittedly, artists from the past sometimes use language and exhibit attitudes we now rightly deplore. But as Joe E. Brown observed at the end of “Some Like It Hot,” nobody’s perfect. One must balance Wagner’s music against his reprehensible anti-Semitism. You may choose never to listen to “Tristan und Isolde,” but you can’t deny its heart-stopping beauty and profound influence. What may be Joseph Conrad’s greatest novella carries the “N-word” in its title. How much does this matter? Each person should be allowed to make his or her own decision about such things.

Does my tolerant laissez-faire outlook imply a shirking of combat duty in today’s vicious culture wars? Absolutely. Don’t ask that I start reviewing fiction or nonfiction that addresses the hot-button topics of the moment. I’m not that much of a journalist. Political tracts, bandwagon novels, celebrity biographies, self-help guides — these are the mayflies of publishing. They enjoy a period of ephemeral buzz and a year later can’t be given away.

As I’ve grown older, the darker memento mori aspect of my father’s sage advice has come to seem increasingly urgent. Consequently, I now want to revisit books that blew me away when I first reviewed them, whether Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker,” Angela Carter’s “Wise Children,” Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” or A.S. Byatt’s “Possession.” Yet I also hope to fill in some long-standing gaps on my lifetime reading list, starting with Lord Byron’s letters, Dorothy Dunnett’s swashbuckling “Lymond Chronicles” and Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene.” And did I mention the essays and rediscoveries I still want to write? Clearly, this isn’t the time to dawdle or slack off. Onward!

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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