Friday, June 14, 2019

Book Review: Browsings

Michael Dirda, Browsings: a Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books. New York: Pegasus Books, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-60598-844-3.

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

The book is a collection of essays that Michael Dirda wrote for the online magazine The American Scholar from 2012 to 2013. The essays are mostly bookish and literary but you also find some more personal pieces and even a rant or two. Essays vary in length but are about four pages long on average. Dirda describes the essays in the book's introduction:

"These are, in fact, very much personal pieces, the meandering reflections of a literary sybarite. The essays themselves vary wildly in subject matter, and rarely stick closely to their stated titles" (x).

Some of the topics Dirda includes are:

  • Bookish pets
  • Books on books
  • Spring book sales
  • Dirty pictures (not what you think) 
  • In praise of small presses
For an academic (he does have a doctorate in comparative literature), he does have a nice, warm style of writing. You can sit with this book and your favorite beverage and just relax and read. Dirda is very well read, and it shows in the many connections he makes between his essay topics and books he has read. This is definitely a good book for bedtime reading given the essays are light and easy to read. In addition, if you are looking for new books to read, Dirda is always generous in recommending books to read.

Overall, I really liked this book, and I do recommend it.

4 out of 5 stars.

* * * * * 

Additional reading notes:

In the essay "Armchair Adventures," Dirda starts by asking the following:

"Why is it that I so seldom want to read what everyone else wants to read?"

He makes an essay out of answering that question. My answer is a bit more simple: I do not give a shit about most of what everyone else wants to read. As you can see, my answer is not going to get me any professional writing gigs anytime soon, but it is my honest answer. To further clarify, I'd say it's because I like trying out new things, often new to me things which may be a bit older. Plus I will admit that often I do not think highly of "what everyone else wants to read." For instance, if Oprah puts it on her list, for me that's a "don't bother with this book" sign. In the case of Oprah, after she enthusiastically endorsed A Million Little Pieces only to later force herself to retract that endorsement in order to save face when the author was revealed to be an outright liar, I tend to be very skeptical of hot shot people shaping "what everyone else wants to read." Overall, I know what I like to read, try out something new here or there, and I read what I want to read.

Some suggestions from Dirda's "Books on Books" essay. I am linking titles to WorldCat where a record is available:

By the way, "Black Friday" style madness is not just for places like Walmart and Best Buy. Some high end book sales can be just as bad with long lines before opening, camping out, and then rushing in. See his essay "Spring Book Sales." I guess book collectors can be just as tacky and chusma as everyone else.

Another answer to why not read what everyone else is reading:

"As readers grow older, their tastes often become more rarefied, more refined, more recherché. Certainly mine have. These days I gravitate increasingly to books no one has heard of, let along is interested in, books that are odd and quirky and usually out of print" (109). 

I do not necessarily go for the extremely obscure as Dirda does, but I do seek out the odd and quirky where I can. I am not a book collector in the strict sense of books as objects of value. I do have a lot of books, but they are books to read, not just to stare at on the shelf. In reviewing, I do try for books that are available, even if it means doing an interlibrary loan request. As much as possible, I want books that are accessible to the average person and not just some book collector. Having said that, if I find a nice old paperback used that turns out to be good, even if out of print now, I'll share about it in a review. 

Dirda waxes nostalgic about LPs and CDs while his kids want downloaded music. Personally, I am more on his side. I prefer CDs where I can for the simple reason I own the music I bought on that CD. If I want to rip the CD to make electronic copies to play on my phone, I still own the original. Plus, when it comes to LPs , and some early CDs: 

". . .it once came in a substantial box, with a full libretto in multiple languages. Sometimes there was even a score, as well as a booklet with an essay on the opera and its composer, pictures of the performers and conductor, brief biographies and discographies of everyone involved. The covers of the boxed set might even reproduce a painting, perhaps something by Fragonard or Watteau" "(119).

I remember many of my dad's old LPs included things like song lyrics, photos, and even an essay or two on the music and/or performers. Then there was the cover art. You got a bit of that on the first wave of CDs, but publishers soon began skimping on that. And no, not all of that makes it to the Internet in case any of you technophiles dare suggest doing an Internet search.

Then again, Dirda, like many serious literary types, can get seriously pedantic at times. He commented on a Consumer Reports magazine headline: "America's Worst Scams?" 

"Looking at it, I wondered if that shouldn't be 'America's Best Scams'? Really terrible scames wouldn't be particularly effective, would they?" (177).

To which I reacted: they are the "worst" scams for those who fall for them, you overthinking twit. Plus, honestly, you need to get out more if this is the sort of thing you think about often. 

From his essay "In Praise of Small Presses," to look up: 

On your personal library: 

"Books don't just 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" (233). 

Keep on reading: 

"None of us, of course, will ever read all the books we'd like, but we can still make a stab at it. Why deny yourself all that pleasure? So look around tonight or this weekend, see what catches your fancy on the bookshelf, at the library, or in the bookstore. Maybe try something a little unusual, a little different. And then don't stop. Do it again, with a new book or an old author the following week. Go on-- be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly, unashamedly promiscuous" (234). 

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