Michael Dirda’s rules for reading


Over time, all readers acquire an array of personal, often bizarrely eccentric rules and routines that govern — or warp — how they interact with the printed word. For example, some people will buy only crisp, new trade paperbacks and wouldn’t touch a used book on a bet. Fear of cooties, perhaps. Do you remove the dust jacket when you sit down with a novel? I always do. Can you read (or write) while listening to music? I find this impossible, which is why you’ll never see me working at a coffee shop. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of some of my other reading habits and “crotchets,” to use an old-fashioned term. Perhaps you will recognize a few of your own.

I almost always prefer a hardcover to a paperback and a first edition to a later printing — except in the case of scholarly works, when I want the latest revised or updated version of the text.

My heart sinks when I see a desirable book printed in eye-strainingly small type. Publishers must imagine that only eagles will read it.

I will spend any amount on gift books for my three grandchildren, now ages 8, 6 and 4. Those same grandchildren exploit me mercilessly when we visit Powell’s Books in their hometown, Portland, Ore.

At Readercon, print is still king — and thank goodness for that

As a collector, I follow the flag: that is, American editions for American authors, British editions for British authors.

I’m deeply irritated by remainder marks — those little red dots, black lines or other insignia with which publishers deface the bottom of a remaindered book’s text block.

These days, I expend preposterous amounts of time dillydallying over what to read next. Like Tennessee Williams’s Blanche Dubois, I want magic. It might be found in the enchantments of a novel’s style, the elegance of a scholar’s mind or simply the excitement of learning something new. So I try a few pages of this book and that, restlessly hoping to start one that finally keeps me spellbound.

What I look for in used book shops

In secondhand bookshops, I always look for sharp copies of 1940s and ’50s paperback mysteries, especially Gold Medal titles featuring sexy women on the cover — the best illustrations are by Robert McGinness — or Dell “mapbacks,” which show the scene of the crime on the back.

I find the heavy-duty dust-jacket protectors, commonly used by public libraries, utterly repellent and always remove them whenever I acquire (not often) an ex-library book.

I can’t stop myself from picking up extra copies of favorite books. I own multiple editions of Cyril Connolly’s “The Unquiet Grave,” Joseph Mitchell’s various collections of New Yorker journalism, and E. Nesbit’s novels about the Treasure Seekers and the Bastable family.

Books aren’t commodities

I despise — viscerally, perhaps irrationally — the people one sometimes sees at used book stores scanning every title with a handheld device to check its online price. They regard books strictly as products and usually don’t know anything about them, only caring about what they can buy low and sell high on Amazon or eBay.

Libraries and secondhand dealers sometimes affix ugly labels or price stickers to everything they sell. I soak these excrescences with lighter fluid, so that — with luck — they can be peeled off without abrasion.

Over the years, I’ve tried to gather the best or most entertaining works in various fields that interest me. That means the literature of almost all genres and time periods, but also books about art, classical music and the history of ideas. As a working-class kid I daydreamed about owning Henry Higgins’s library, as seen in the film version of “My Fair Lady.” While I’ll never have that wonderful room, I now have the books.

More reviews by Michael Dirda

Finding a needle in a haystack

I feel insanely chuffed at recognizing scarce and desirable works that have been overlooked or underpriced. I once paid $5 for an inscribed first edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Tell My Horse” in a very good dust jacket. Try to find a like copy today.

I never climb on a plane or take a trip without at least two books, the second as backup.

Getting kids to love books

Anything that teaches a young child to love reading is fine, including — to speak from experience — superhero comics and Mad Magazine. To my mind, though, high school English classes should avoid works by living authors and instead emphasize canonical “classics.” Young people will gravitate to their contemporaries as a matter of course, but they won’t read Shakespeare or George Eliot or Walt Whitman or Frederick Douglass on their own.

I keep an eye out for pulp magazines with iconic covers. Thus, I own the August 1927 “War of the Worlds” issue of Amazing Stories illustrated by Frank R. Paul, the June 1933 Weird Tales featuring Margaret Brundage’s daring art for Robert E. Howard’s “Black Colossus,” and some wonderful examples of the Shadow, All-Story, Blue Book and Dime Detective magazines. I’m still looking for an attractive, yet affordable, early issue of Black Mask.

Every year or so, I dip into guides on how to write, and not just William Strunk and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style.” I regularly fear — perhaps with good reason — that my prose isn’t just sturdy and plain, like Shaker furniture, but actually stale, flat and dull.

Except for beautifully printed or rarely found books, I read almost everything with a pencil in my hand. I mark favorite passages, scribble notes in margins, sometimes even make shopping lists on the end papers. To paraphrase Gibbon on the Roman Emperor Gordian’s 22 acknowledged concubines, my books are for use, not ostentation.

Rule of thumb: Always check title pages of used books for author signatures or interesting inscriptions. I’ve found first editions autographed by H.G. Wells and Eric Ambler on the $3 carts of secondhand dealers.

Whenever an author I admire mentions a favorite book in an interview or essay, I make a note to look for a copy.

One of my favorite daydreams — I know how pathetic this sounds — is imagining a month in which I do nothing but cull my books, then properly arrange or even catalogue those that remain.

I regularly copy favorite sentences and passages from my reading into a small notebook I’ve kept since I was in my early 20s. Examples? “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” — Immanuel Kant. “The primary function of education is to make one maladjusted to ordinary society.” — Northrop Frye. “Love is holy because it is like grace — the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” — Marilynne Robinson.

When I’m in a bookstore and notice works by dead authors whom I once counted as friends, I silently say, “Hello, Tom,” “Looking good, John,” “Wish you were here, Alice.”

Buy only what you will read

Mine is a personal library, not a focused collection. I never buy any book I don’t hope to enjoy someday. True collectors, by contrast, aim to be exhaustive and inclusive, gathering all sorts of material they have no intention of ever reading.

One person’s discard …

During my afternoon walks, I always check out Little Free Library boxes and blue recycling bins. I like to see what people have been reading and drinking.

I’ve never used a Kindle or any type of e-reader. I value books as physical artifacts, each one distinct. Screens impose homogeneity.

I regret that the ideal of a home or family library has pretty much vanished along with door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen and sets of the “Great Books of the Western World.”

Leave old books as they are

Any bowdlerization, “sensitivity editing” or rewriting of older literature is absolutely wrongheaded. Books aren’t something one approves or disapproves of; they are to be understood, interpreted, learned from, shocked by, argued with and enjoyed. Moreover, the evolution of literature and the other arts, their constant renewal over the centuries, has always been fueled by what is now censoriously labeled “cultural appropriation” but which is more properly described as “influence,” “inspiration” or “homage.” Poets, painters, novelists and other artists all borrow, distort and transform. That’s their job; that’s what they do.

After years as a literary journalist, I no longer feel I’ve really read a book unless I write something about it.

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.


Source link

Leave a Comment