Friday, June 21, 2019

Booknote: Book by Book

Michael Dirda, Book by Book: Notes on the Reading Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2006. ISBN: 0-8050-7877-0.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: books about books, reading, personal essay
Format: hardcover
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library

After reading Browsings, I saw Book by Book at my public library and picked it up. I'll say up front that it was not as good as the other book. Book by Book is a collection of essays on various topics combining highlights of Dirda's life, notes on book he has read, book recommendations, and quotes from books jotted down as you would in a commonplace book.

The book has a preface, ten chapters, and "a selective and idiosyncratic who's who." That last section is a list of authors and thinkers mentioned in the book; it is a very personal list for him, so your mileage may vary in terms of what may interest you or not.

My main issue with the book is that is not as interesting as the other book of his I recently read,  Browsings (link to my review). In this book, at times Dirda goes into some seriously obscure books and topics. Other times he just gets a bit too verbose and even outright boring. When an essay in this book is good, it is good. When it is not, it becomes a drag. In terms of quality, the book is pretty inconsistent overall. I'd say if you really like Dirda's work, you'll likely enjoy this. If you have not read him before, this book is good, but it is not his best. I liked it, but I wanted to really like it; it was just not consistent.

3 out of 5 stars.

* * * * * 

Additional reading notes:

Quoted by Dirda:

"Remember that every life is a special problem, which is not your's but another's; and content yourself with  the terrible algebra of your own" -- Henry James. 

Dirda on knowledge:

"Knowledge isn't only its own reward; it gives us maps through the wilderness, instruments to guide our progress, and the confidence that no matter where we are we will always be, fundamentally, at home" (18). 

Dirda, like other authors, is concerned children do not read enough, favoring electronic devices and screens. I can't say I totally disagree with him, even if he sounds a bit too nostalgic. The issue is not lack of  books. He mentions how the 1970s and 1980s saw a lot of children and young adult books published, and later we got the J.K. Rowling juggernaut, but again, electronic screens and the Internet emerged. He writes,

"In 1950s Ohio, a boy could slide easily into daydreams about King Solomon's mines, mysterious islands, swordplay in Ruritania, cackling master criminals, and dark avengers. Books fed the imagination" (73).


"While I sometimes think it's wrong to be concerned, it has been a long while since I glimpsed a kid sprawled under a shade tree lost in a book. After all, we can't count on J.K. Rowling to create or sustain a passion for turning pages. Like Aristotelian virtue, reading is a habit. Children need to read, then to read some more. Quantity matters far more than quality-- there will be plenty of time for classics. But when starting out, the young should be immersed in a culture of the sentence, not the screen" (73). 

That is cute. Children reading under a shade tree. I wonder what pastoral utopia he lived in.

Dirda offers some advice to parents for encouraging kids to read more. This includes:

"Fill your house with print. There should be paperbacks, comics, magazines, and newspapers everywhere the children look. Books should be a part of a family's daily life, not something special. Ideally, each member of the household should have his or her own bookcase" (74).

That was certainly true growing up for me. We did have books and print in the house. In fact, our dad paid for two newspapers, a local and the local edition in English language just to encourage us to read in Spanish and English. I was always fortunate enough to have access to books growing up, and even had my own bookshelf in time in my room. On an odd though, we were never taken to the public library. Only library I knew was mainly the small one in the schools I attended, but that is another story.

Some books Dirda recommends that I would like to look up later:

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