Dirda, Michael, (Jr.) 1948–

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Dirda, Michael, (Jr.) 1948–

PERSONAL: Born 1948, in Lorain, OH; son of Michael, Sr., and Christine Dirda; married Marian Peck; children: Christopher, Michael, Nathaniel. Education: Oberlin College, B.A., 1970; Cornell University, M.A., 1974, Ph.D., 1977.

ADDRESSES: Home—MD. Office—Washington Post Book World, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, DC 20071.

CAREER: Critic, editor, and book columnist. Washington Post Book World, Washington, DC, 1978–, served as staff writer, children's book editor, senior editor, and department deputy editor; University of Central Florida, Orlando, honors college, visiting professor, 1999; McDaniel College, Westminster, MD, visiting scholar, 2005. Worked briefly as a technical writer for a computer company.

MEMBER: National Book Critics Circle (former board of directors member), National Council, Atlantic Center for the Arts (New Smyrna Beach, FL), Banker Street Irregulars, P. G. Wodehouse Society, Ghost Story Society.

AWARDS, HONORS: Fulbright Scholar, France, 1970–71; Pulitzer Prize for criticism, 1993; honorary Doctor of Letters, Washington College, 1997; Ohioana Award for nonfiction, 2004, for Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books.


Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 2000.

An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland (memoir), W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2003.

Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2005.

Contributor of essay to An Odyssey in Print: Adventures in the Smithsonian Libraries, Smithsonian Institution Press (Washington, DC), 2002; contributing editor, The Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus. Contributor of introductions to novels, short story collections, and essay collections. Contributor of book reviews to periodicals, including Times Literary Supplement, Atlantic Monthly, and Smithsonian Magazine.

SIDELIGHTS: Michael Dirda, a longtime literary critic for the Washington Post Book World, has produced collections of his literary criticism and thoughts about writing; he has also written a literary memoir. In Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, Dirda gathers together his "Readings" columns from the Washington Post Book World. Instead of focusing solely on reviews and criticisms of books, the columns touch on a variety of topics, such as book collecting, the joys of reading, humorous classics, and books for children. They also include personal reminiscences about family and a life full of reading. Writing in Library Journal, Henry Carrigan noted, "Dirda both instructs and entertains with his delightful wit and his zestful insight." An Atlantic Monthly contributor commented that the author's "obvious relish of books allows him to exhort without sounding self-important and without making reading difficult works seem like taking medicine." The reviewer added that the best gift Dirda provides is "leading his readers to unjustly neglected or forgotten titles."

In An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland, Dirda writes about growing up in a small town and of how books shaped his life and aspirations. In an article in Library Journal, Dirda explained to Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., his decision to write a memoir, noting, "After all these years of writing and reading, I started wondering how it had all come about. This memoir is partly an explanation of how books came to be central to my life." In the first parts of the book, Dirda recounts growing up in a working-class home with an unhappy steelworker father who did not understand his son's love of reading, and a mother who did read him children's stories but who seems to be in a constant state of worry. For the young Dirda, reading offers both a solace for his own dissatisfactions with life and refuge from household tensions. As noted by Carrigan in Library Journal, "Dirda's relationship with his father … is at the core of the narrative." Although his father did not get around to telling Dirda he loved him until he was on his death bed, "the elder Dirda emerges as a positive force" in the critic's life, according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor. In a scene that Carrigan called "poignant," Dirda recounts his father taking him to the local library, despite his parents' general lack of interest in books. The memoir also recounts many of Dirda's early real-life and imaginative exploits with the opposite sex, the time he ran away to Pittsburgh, his experience reading numerous books, his early mentors, and his first years as a scholarship student at Oberlin College. The book ends in 1968, when Dirda is nineteen years old and in Paris.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Bernadette Murphy stated that "ultimately this is a love story, full of passion for literature and marked by intellectual vigor." In addition, Morris Dickstein, in a review of An Open Book for the Washington Post, commented, "the transformation of working-class and immigrant children into gifted professionals is a story often told, for it goes to the heart of the American dream, perhaps of modernity itself." Dickstein went on to note, "Rarely has it been combined with such a glowing tribute to the world of books and the life of the mind." A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that Dirda's "story of intellectual tenacity in middle America rises above its author's sometimes overly precious attempt at self-examination." Writing in the Christian Century, Trudy Bush commented, "As his memoir moves away from childhood … it becomes more of a synopsis of books read and less an account of the life lived." Noting that Dirda "sees his life" as a sort of script akin to the "Horatio Alger story," Bush felt "focusing on the development of his skill as a reader and his progress in reading taste doesn't give that script much drama." In a review for Library Journal, Carrigan commented that the memoir "provides a rich and evocative portrait of the reader as a young man," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor called the work "an effervescent yet self-effacing tale of a youngster who viewed a library as an all-you-can-eat buffet—and greedily gorged." Donna Seaman noted in Booklist that An Open Book "traces the book-strewn path … with a wistful sense of wonder and gratitude."

In Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books Dirda provides a collection of more than one hundred of his essays from the Washington Post Book World. He talks about writers and books, from the Bible, Herodotus and Ovid, to modern-day authors like William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. Dirda does not focus solely on "literary" works and writers, however; he also discusses crime novels, fantasy, spy thrillers, and even Tarzan and the "spaghetti western" films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to George Garrett, writing in the Hollins Critic, Dirda himself calls his essays "'old fashioned appreciations, a fan's notes, good talk.'" But Garrett commented that while this may be "true enough … (for once) his publisher is closer to the mark announcing the book as 'an extraordinary one-volume literary education.' Which it really and truly is." Reviewing the book for the Times Literary Supplement, Brian Dillon wrote that "Dirda defends complexity as a pleasure to which the ordinary reader might aspire; his essays on Ruskin, Proust, Beckett and Borges are exemplary invitations." A Kirkus Reviews contributor was also impressed, noting that "it's his ability to dive in and extract themes, patterns, and even sweeping contexts that grip—along with bushels of literary quotes and epigrams." Stefan Beck, writing in New Criterion, felt Dirda "proclaiming" the quality of typically non-literary works like science fiction and detective novels "is just a means of looking like a broad-minded literary omnivore." Despite pointing out what he felt were several other shortcomings of the book, Beck went on to note, "However … none of these shortcomings ever quite overshadows the collections' fine points. It is a thorough and beautifully written document of the great pleasure reading can bring."

Dirda told CA: "I grew up in a poor, blue-collar, rustbelt town on the shores of Lake Erie—Lorain, Ohio, about thirt-five miles from Cleveland. My father had quit school at the age of sixteen during the Depression and, after service during World War II in the navy, spent the rest of his working life as a laborer in the National Tube division of U.S. Steel, hating every minute of it. He was a passionate, dreamy man, often difficult to be around, a tyrant in his home, and deeply, persistently unhappy. My mother, by contrast, was—and is—sunny-spirited, playful, and extremely focused. She taught me to print at an early age so that she could leave me at the raffle box of the local grocery store while she was doing the weekly shopping. 'Mikey,' my mother would say, 'just print your name, address, and telephone number on these little pieces of paper and push them through this hole. See how many you can write before Mommy gets back. I bet a big boy like you could do almost a hundred.' The Dirdas nearly always won something—twenty dollars worth of groceries, a ham, a fresh turkey. So early on I learned that good writing—or at least clear printing—might be very tangibly rewarded.

"I never actually set out to write a straightforward memoir, to add my own reminiscences to the reams now ticker-taping from the computer printers of seemingly every other writer in America. If you know St. Augustine's Confessions, you may recall that it is, at heart, a book about the operation of grace in one man's life. What I wanted to do was trace the operation of reading in my own—to show how the Hardy Boys and Uncle Scrooge and Tarzan and the Green Lantern and Mad magazine and Sherlock Holmes and the Count of Monte Cristo shaped my childhood dreams. In the end, I continued this tale of classics and pulp fictions into my adolescence—and to the impact of Dale Carnegie's self-help books and Thoreau's Walden, as well as my discovery of Crime and Punishment, Hamlet, and The Communist Manifesto. In An Open Book I also embrace recollections of my teachers and friends, my early attempts at writing, various summer and weekend jobs, and my excitement about poetry, philosophy, and girls.

The pieces in Bound to Please are intended to encourage people to read more widely, to go back to the classics of the past and to explore some of the wonderful contemporary writing in fantasy, science fiction, children's literature, and mysteries. No cultivated person today should be hamstrung by unthinking prejudices about these genres. I've also emphasized terrific writers from around the world who are insufficiently read and known in the United States—among them, Fernando Pessoa, Raymond Queneau, Machado de Assis, Flann O'Brien, Marguerite Yourcenar, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Joseph Roth. But no matter what my subject, I do try to write in an entertaining fashion. After all, my audience has usually been comprised of people sleepily flipping through the newspaper while sipping coffee on Sunday morning. As it happens, my own favorite essays in the book are almost all by authors who wrote in French—Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Colette, Proust, and Samuel Beckett."



Dirda, Michael, An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2003.


Atlantic Monthly, January, 2001, review of Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, pp. 89-90.

Booklist, September 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of An Open Book, p. 47; December 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books, p. 620.

Boston Globe, October 26, 2003, James Sallis, review of An Open Book, p. D9.

Christian Century, May 18, 2004, Trudy Bush, review of An Open Book, p. 32.

Daily Record (Baltimore, MD), February 19, 2005, Mark Cheshire, review of Bound to Please.

Entertainment Weekly, November 14, 2003, Gregory Kirschling, review of An Open Book, p. 132.

Hollins Critic, February, 2005, George Garrett, review of Bound to Please, p. 22.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2003, review of An Open Book, p. 1001; October 1, 2004, review of Bound to Please, p. 946.

Library Journal, October 15, 2000, Henry Carrigan, review of Readings, p. 68; August, 2003, Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., "Portrait of a Reader: Dirda Opens up about His Childhood and the Books That Shaped It," p. 83; August, 2003, Henry L. Carrigan, review of An Open Book, p. 82.

Library Quarterly, January, 2003, Philip J. Weimerskirch, review of An Odyssey in Print: Adventures in the Smithsonian Libraries, p. 93.

Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2003, Bernadette Murphy, review of An Open Book, p. E8.

M2 Best Books, November 14, 2003, review of An Open Book.

New Criterion, December, 2004, Stefan Beck, review of Bound to Please, p. 80.

Publishers Weekly, August 4, 2003, review of An Open Book, p. 63.

San Diego Reader, November 20, 2003, interview with Dirda, pp. 84-86.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 12, 2003, June Sawyer, review of An Open Book, p. M2.

San Jose Mercury News, December 6, 2004, Charles Matthews, review of Bound to Please, p. H1.

School Library Journal, December, 2003, Barbara A. Genco, review of An Open Book, p. 58.

Times Literary Supplement, April 8, 2005, Brian Dillon, review of Bound to Please, p. 26.

Washington Post, October 15, 2003, Morris Dickstein, review of An Open Book, p. 131.

Wilson Quarterly, winter, 2004, Angela Starita, review of An Open Book, p. 131.