advice from Michael Dirda : The Best-Read Man in America

This article on the Paris Review site sent to me via the Longreads twitter feed; got me stoked. After a bit of snooping on /r/books I came across an IAmA by the man himself in which he doles out some sound  advice.

I have no idea how many books I’ve read. But I review about 75 books a year–50 for the Post and the rest for other magazines and periodicals. I try to write two pieces a week, though I don’t always manage that. Remember I’m not including the blogs and mini-essays I write for The Post and the American Scholar. And all these reviews are for money. I live by my pen and hesitate to devote too much time to any writing that won’t help pay the bills.

How do you feel about the trend of reading books electronically? Do you think this takes away from the mystique of reading hard copies, or is it a positive trend if people begin to read more?

Of course, anything that encourages people to read more–and, better yet–more widely is all to the good. But your point about “mystique” is an important one. I think e-book readers tend to slightly flatten the reading experience, making all books look roughly alike. I think books should be different in look and feel. Raymond Chandler ought to be read in a cheap paperback with a leggy blonde on the cover; Henry James demands some stately format like the New York Edition. I also like to read first editions, or editions close to when a book first appeared, because this adds what Walter Benjamin called a certain “aura.” I also worry that reading on screens invites quick reading, almost scanning, rather than the slow immersion that serious reading requires. But I don’t want to make too much of this. People probably complained when the codex first appeared and said “What was wrong with scrolls?”

Let’s talk logistics: How do you manage to read so many books, so often? Is it just that you make reading your top priority and spend every waking moment doing it, or do you read particularly quickly? Or both?

I’m not at all a speed reader–I move my lips while I read. But I am dogged and I do like to read. I even like to write, which probably sounds even more unlikely. And you’re right: I don’t do a lot that other people do. Very few movies. Almost no television. I try to keep my interactions with computers restricted to writing and emails. Hence, no Facebook or social networking, which I regard as time-sinks. I come from a working class family and as a kid I really wanted to feel at home in the world, and through reading books I gained something of that sense of being educated, even–dread word–cosmopolitan. But mostly I like learning things and books to me are still the primary way of doing that.

By knowing a few works of art well you gain a handle on a lot of other works. Once you’ve figured out how to read one sonnet, you’re halfway to being able to read any sonnet. Do you know William Empson’s great book Seven Types of Ambiguity? I read this when I was a freshman in college and it opened my eyes to the fact that there was a lot more going on in a poem than I was aware of. Empson showed me how to look, where to look, in poems for keys and signs of “deeper” meaning. All of which said, we ultimately always read for excitement, for pleasure. Understanding and interpretation comes later. If there’s no excitement you just won’t bother with the rest. But there are obviously different kinds of pleasure. I could go on.

You might want to ask yourself why you’re becoming an English teacher if you haven’t read much. Perhaps you’ve simply not had the chance or only lately discovered a passion for literature. But really, it doesn’t matter so much how many books you’ve gotten through as how many books have gotten through you. If that’s clear. Better to know a couple of dozen books well than a couple of hundred only superficially.

Apart from whether you believe the Bible is sacred scripture or not, it remains one of the great foundational works of western culture. It’s simply hard to understand a lot of art, music, literature and much else if you don’t have some acquaintance with the stories, people and poetry of the Bible.

Do you think you are as well versed in other mediums (film, theater, video games, sculpture, etc) as you are in literature? Either way, how do you think that impacts your perception of literature? Does being well versed in the criticism of other media aid in the criticism of a particular one?

I know books well, and pre-1980 movies, classical music and art reasonably well too. But, apart from once reviewing Myst when it came out, I don’t play computer or video games, know nothing about American Idol, have never watched reality TV, and am generally pretty out of it when it comes to what was once called “youth” culture. But, hey, it would look really weird for a guy my age to be deeply into those things. New media requier new critical tools, and those are developed over time.

The more you put into an ambitious book, a great book, the more you get out of it. If you read Proust, you could say it’s about a guy who has trouble getting to sleep or who likes madleines with tisane. But that’s hardly all there is to the novel. Of course, the effort is only worth it when the novel delivers a payoff.

Pick your books carefully. If a book doesn’t speak to you, set it aside and try another. Cut down on TV or social networking. Everything in life is ultimately about triage, priorities.

Many of my best friends could be described as “paperback writers.” I admire people who can crank out a novel in a week or even a weekend. So aspire to be Larry Block or Don Westlake or Bob Silverberg or Barry Malzberg–these guys are masters. I read comic books regularly when I was in graduate school in medieval studies. Stereotypes should be flouted. I once reviewed three Harlequin romances for Valentine’s Day and I remember the lede: “This is where I lose all credibility as a critic.” I said they were excellent books for what they were, well crafted, witty, fulfilling the function of a romance novel. Sometimes you want to climb Mt. Everest; sometimes you just want to take a stroll in the park. There’s a place in a reader’s life for all kinds of books.

My mom believes in the Tao of the universe–when something good happens to you or your family, that means something bad will have to happen to balance it out. And vice versa.

Read as much as you can and as widely as you can. Every writer alive will give you the same advice. You don’t become a writer until you’ve first been a reader. An editor needs to have read a lot, but also to possess a sense of story structure, an ear for prose rhythm, a sound knowledge of grammar, and a willingness to check all kinds of things.

Do you believe that almost all authors who wrote novels of literary merit genuinely intended to insert all the symbolism and deeper meaning into their works, or do you think they were just trying to tell a good yarn, and we’ve somewhat over-analyzed their stories to fit some underlying theme?

Depends. College teachers tend to downplay story or plot in favor of character development or symbolism. But an artist makes every word do double duty–it might advance the plot, but also echo something from earlier in the story. Certainly, Melville meant Moby Dick to be symbolic or he wouldn’t have put in all that business about the whiteness of the whale. But there’s art and there’s entertainment, there are books you read once and books you read again and again.Sometimes the reason is because there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than is immediately perceived. The book gains a certain richness, almost a haunting quality when that happens.

Oscar Wilde once said that only an auctioneer could appreciate all forms of art. Everyone has a book or author or genre that doesn’t “work” for them. But classics are classics for a reason; they speak to us generation after generation. Today, we may not care as much for Boethius or Spenser as earlier generations, but that’s probably because we’re failing to measure up to them in some way.

Check out Mr. Dirda’s regular column at the Post.