Michael Dirda has long been one of our strongest and most passionate advocates for the pleasures of books and reading — a topic I have some investment in myself — and on those subjects he has a lovely farewell column at the American Scholar blog:
1) To my mind, reading should be a pleasure and, through these columns, I’ve tried to pass along some of the excitement and rewards of my own bookish life. All too often the work of today’s literary journalists calls to mind a remark made by Wilfred Sheed about the once-well-known critic Irving Howe. What Sheed said, more or less, was this: When you read Irving Howe’s criticism, you can tell that he’s not doing it for fun. […]
2) I hope that the past 50 or so columns have reminded readers that the world of books is bigger than the current best-seller list. Thirty-five years ago this spring, I was hired as an assistant editor at The Washington Book World. My ambition then, and now, has remained pretty much the same: to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books. […]
A reviewer’s lot is not always an easy one. I can remember flogging myself to finish Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, despite the novel’s consummate, unmitigated tedium. Some people — not I — have complained about Proust’s meandering sentences, Henry James’s fine distinctions, or Thomas Aquinas’s logic-chopping. Well, I say if you don’t like them, don’t read them. You’re not in school any more. Even the best mountaineers aren’t always up for an ascent of Mount Everest. Sometimes a reader just wants to spend some idle days on the Yann, or drift slowly along with Hercule Poirot as he solves some hideously complicated murder, or quietly revel in the mishaps of Bertie Wooster and Gussie Fink-Nottle.
Just remember, though: keep trying books outside your comfort zone. At least from time to time. True readers ought to be explorers.
3) 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. When I was growing up, there used to be a magisterial librarian’s guide entitled Living with Books. I think that’s the right idea. Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, reminding you, chastising you, calling to you. Plus, book collecting is, hands down, the greatest pastime in the world.
I am not a book collector myself, though not because I don’t enjoy or appreciate the pasttime. Rather, when I was in graduate school I decided that I could become either a book collector or a responsible academic, and (perhaps unwisely) I chose the latter course. But in all other respects, to Dirda’s essay I simply say, Amen.