HOTSEAT- The Reader: <i>Post</i> critic talks books, squeezebox

Michael Dirda

When Michael Dirda was growing up in an Ohio town that didn't have a bookstore and where reading material was purchased from the drug or thrift store, a future in literature seemed pretty unlikely. So how did a Russian/Slovak kid from a working class family become a Fulbright scholar, a PhD, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Washington Post?


Dirda cites two of the most influential from his youth: Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Dale Carnegie's How to Stop Worrying and Have a Good Time.

Dale Carnegie? "It taught me how to get along with people in society," defends Dirda, an important message for a "quiet, fat, not-very-confident kid."

It's that lack of pretentiousness that's endeared Dirda to his readers at the Washington Post.

The recently demised Washington Post Book World was still a broadsheet when Dirda started there in 1978, and the tabloid insert saw its last issue February 15.

"It's distressing in the sense I worked at Book World most of my adult life," he says. 

He still writes reviews for the Post, but doesn't work there anymore.

"I took one of the first buyouts five years ago," says Dirda. "I wanted to write more. The upshot is, I've worked harder the past five years than I ever have. Now I have to hustle."

And he's certainly writing more: five books since 2000, most recently Classics for Pleasure in 2007, and regular reviews for the New York Review of Books as well as many other publications, including the Post, where he also moderates a blog, Dirda's Reading Room.

He describes a typical day: Breakfast, walk dog, check email, read, run errands, greet youngest child home from school, read, run around the block or go to the gym, make dinner, read more. "All and all," he says, "it's a boring life, interrupted by moments of sheer panic."

For book lovers, it sounds like a dream. The downside? His reading is for work. "I never read for pleasure any more," he confesses.

Even with his old favorite recreational readings, Golden Age mysteries by John Dickson Carr or the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse, "It's always in the back of my mind, maybe I'll do something with this." And sure enough, "I ended up doing a 5,000-word essay on John Dickson Carr."


Michael Dirda will be at two Virginia Festival of the Book events on Friday, March 20: "So Many Books... The Pleasures of Reading" at 10am at the Central Library, and "Book Review Superstars" at 4pm at the UVA Bookstore.

Age: Old enough to know better and not care  

What do you like best about Charlottesville? Its used bookstores, especially Heartwood and Daedalus

Least? The traffic between Charlottesville and Washington.

Favorite hangout here? The downtown pedestrian mall

Most overrated virtue? Prudence

People would be surprised to know about you: I don't think of myself as particularly bookish.

What would you change about yourself? I'd have perfect 20/20 vision.

Proudest accomplishment? To have stayed relatively trim and fit, despite a genetic predisposition to live on glazed donuts, pizza, hot biscuits, chocolate-covered pretzels, every sort of fruit pie, and other such starchy delicacies, not to overlook  a similar craving for Guinness and red wine.  

People find most annoying about you: Hard for me to say, but I'll guess my ability to remember what I read, in detail, even decades later.

Whom do you admire? Robert Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books

Favorite book? My commonplace book. A commonplace book is a kind of intellectual scrapbook into which you copy favorite passages and quotations from your reading. I've kept one for 40 years. Two sample quotes:  "Remember that every life is a special problem, which is not yours but another's; and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own."—Henry James;  "One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake."–Chekhov.

Subject that causes you to rant? Any sort of nationalism.  As William James once said, "I am against greatness and bigness in all their forms." 

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Of those that I can publicly acknowledge: Becoming a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the Sherlock Holmes society that was founded 75 years ago and is still going strong. 

Biggest 21st-century creep out? The rise of religious and ethnic fanaticism around the world. I had thought we'd gotten beyond such horrors.

What do you drive? A black '97 Nissan Maxima, with manual transmission. If I could afford the extravagance, I'd have a classic Porsche 911.

In your car CD player right now: My musical tastes are eclectic— primarily classical, with a fondness for opera, Renaissance choral music and chamber music. But I also love the American Songbook, and female  singers ranging from Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington to Lorrie Morgan, Eva Cassidy, Diana Krall and Madeleine Peyroux. My favorite piece of music is Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro." It makes me happy to hear it. My favorite songs include Margaret Whiting singing "The Way You Look Tonight," Pam Tillis's "Maybe it Was Memphis," Lenny Welch's version of "Since I Fell For You" and Jimmie Dale Gilmore covering "I Was the One."

Next journey? I'll listen to an audiobook of The Wind in the Willows. I'm writing a long piece about Kenneth Grahame's classic and want to hear it read aloud. 

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Trouble is relative, but probably running away from home at the age of 14 for four-and-a-half days. I hitchhiked from my hometown– Lorain, Ohio– to Pittsburgh, then around Southern Ohio, dodging the state patrol who had been alerted that I was a runaway. One of the chapters in my memoir An Open Book recounts this adventure. 

Biggest regret: I always wanted to live and work in Manhattan, and still do, but got side-tracked to Washington.

Favorite comfort food: Pierogies.

Always in your refrigerator: Milk. I eat cereal for breakfast almost every day, usually Weetabix, with a handful of Bran Flakes on top, along with some raisins, blueberries or strawberries, and a sliced-up banana. And then two cups of black coffee.   

Must-see TV: My favorite TV show is The Simpsons, though it's fallen off in recent years, and I don't watch it much any more. But I hardly ever watch TV at all.

Describe a perfect day: Driving around to used bookshops with my old friend David Streitfeld, and finding lots of treasures, then finishing the day by having a leisurely, bibulous dinner and talking about books, life, women— the great and timeless subjects. 

Walter Mitty fantasy: To have a dozen mysterious veiled women– of differing ages and nationalities, all beautiful, all dressed in black and never before seen by my friends and family– weep copiously at my funeral and then vanish, after each had cast a single red rose onto my simple wooden coffin. Which would actually be empty, since I would have had my body cryogenically frozen until it and I could be revived two centuries from now, at which point I would discover that my essays were included in The Norton Anthology of Literature, 114th edition, and my books were the most popular volumes ever published in the Library of America.

Who'd play you in the movie? Harrison Ford

Most embarrassing moment? I used to play the accordion as a kid and perform a razzle-dazzle number called "Boogie-Woogie on the Squeezebox." It had everything: fancy keyboarding, bellow shakes, etc., etc. It was a showstopper, but my mother had never seen me play it in public. When she finally came to a church hall where I was performing— along with a large band I was part of— I started in on the number, noticed my mother in the audience and my mind went blank. I had to stop, start again, stall again, restart, then skip a section and drag myself through to the end. The tepid applause was more from pity than anything else. My mother was embarrassed for me, of course, but the evening proved to be a great boon: Nothing I have ever had to face since then has ever been as awful as that night of public disgrace in front of my Mom.  

Best advice you ever got? From Bill  Greider, then a national reporter for the Washington Post: "Writing that isn't fun to read doesn't get read." Best advice I've ever read in a book: "Work is the best, and a certain numbness, a merciful numbness"—D.H. Lawrence.

Favorite bumper sticker? Rugby Players Eat Their Dead