Browsings by Michael Dirda

,204,203,200_Browsings by Michael Dirda

A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books

What prompts me gravitate to books about other books?  They only add to my long lists and piles of books I want – nay, must read.  It’s a sickness I tell you – a real sickness.  You may remember this post, when, after doing the math, I soberly realized I’ll never read all the books I want to read.  But like a moth on its death journey towards a hot light, here I go again.  Send help…

I just finished reading Browsings, Michael Dirda’s collection of essays about – you guessed it — books and reading.  Mr. Dirda, a weekly book columnist for the Washington Post, is no slouch, he received the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished literary criticism.

These essays come from his writings for The American Scholar.  I’d never heard of this journal and after some sleuthing (OK, a bit of Google searching) it turns out to be the quarterly magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  (No wonder I never heard of it.  Way above my mental pay grade.) Lest you fear, these essays are down to earth, funny and nowhere near as pretentious as “The American Scholar”.  Just read this from the back jacket cover:

He was once chosen by Washingtonian Magazine as one of the twenty-five smartest people in our nation’s capital  – but, as Michael says, you have to consider the competition.

In the introduction, Mr. Dirda recommends reading his essays no more than a few at a time, and also reading them in order.  I obeyed the first advice, but not the second.  I admit I did leap around a bit, but in the end, I read them all.  Browsings was my constant companion for that soothing half hour just before falling asleep.

The essays in Browsings are eclectic and seemingly random…from his sad musings of his mother’s nursing home to the loss of cursive penmanship – but the connective tissue is books, reading books, collecting books, finding books, talking about books and writing about books.

In fact, many of the essays are interspersed with reading lists (thus my ever expanding TBR titles).  We share a fondness for Christmas books — he lists and summarizes his favorites – (taking notes, taking notes…)

Another essay starts with a rant against his local power company when he was without power for three days during a DC area heat wave.*  By the third day, he blissfully escapes to a cooler, more northerly-located bookstore.  Mr. Dirda, naturally summarizes the numerous books he acquired.  (Come right this way folks, see the idiot making yet more lists of books…)

He has a love of older books – eschews bestsellers and feasts his eyes (and his wallet) on the vibrant dust-jackets of the 1940’s and 50’s.   There’s a divine essay dedicated to the golden age of detective novels – trust me readers, you, too, will be jotting notes.  Mr. Dirda, in another excerpt, reflects upon the bookshelves, favorite notebooks and writing implements of various great authors — what reader can’t resist picturing Colette writing with a beloved Parker fountain pen?

After reading an article about millionaire author and Law & Order producer David Wolf, who owns a home in Montecito, California — “where God would live if he had the money.” –he ponders excessive wealth and Tolstoy’s lament – “how much (land) does a man need?”  Mr. Dirda reflects on his own excess — books:

It’s certainly not as though I need any more books. Just yesterday I was up in the attic creating neat stacks of those I would like to read Right Now.

Of course the author speaks fluent French and taught English in Marseille.  He tells of a hunch-backed dwarf who cut hair in a garage, where one had to climb down into a pit so he could circle around and cut the hair.  I don’t do the tale justice, you must read it for yourself.

When I read the following passage, I wondered if Mr. Dirda was a ghost here in my home office, silently judging me hunched over my computer:

…I’ve discovered, you have to get out, you do need to see other human beings.  You can’t just read and write all day, much as I’d like to.   After a few hours in a chair, my body grows achy, my brain feel even mushier than usual, my tired eyes start to hurt.  To refresh myself I usually go for a walk, or if I’m feeling virtuous and resolute, I’ll hike over to the gym.  (Thanks much, how to be superior Mr. Dirda.)

I just love this guy, he’s a charming, quirky book nerd.  How could I not fall for a guy who dreams of traveling around North America in a van visiting secondhand bookstores. (Question, would a van be large enough for both of us and our book purchases? — Time to re-think the vehicle Mr. Dirda.)

After finishing the final essay, and in addition to the wildly optimistic new list of books I must want to read, I jotted down some quotes from Browsings – you bibliophiles out there will relate:

I also think of some books as my friends and I like to have them around.  They brighten my life.


The world of books is bigger than the current best-seller list.


Books don’t furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know.

What fun it was to spend time each evening with a witty, engaging and off-the-charts-smart booklover whose reading covers a surprisingly wide breadth of interest and expertise.

Look for his other books which include Book by Book (own it), Classics for Pleasure (want it), and Readings (just got it).


(*N.B. He’s talking about Silver Spring, Maryland, where I grew up and summers were indeed brutal.  I spent those hot, humid days with Nancy Drew in front of a cooling fan until I was forced to go out and play. That says a great deal don’t you think?)


  1. Rob
    May 10, 2016

    This sounds perfect for me. I will be picking this up to read soon, I think.

    I’ve read all of Nick Hornby’s reading essay collections and loved them, but haven’t really branched out beyond that into the world of books about books.

  2. I have only recently found your blog. I laughed at this post and having an extensive library here in Tasmania I must find this book. My search begins now. Love the sound of all of it. I look forward to following more ofnyour loving books and humour.

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