Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda will give a keynote presentation on Feb. 25 at the Homer Public Library as part of this year’s Big Read program. Dirda is a long-time columnist for The Washington Post and has written for a number of other publications, including The New York Review of Books.
KBBI’s Shahla Farzan spoke with Dirda about how he first developed his love for reading and where he stands on the "book versus tablet" debate.
When it comes to reading, some people grew up in libraries and others discovered their love of books a little bit later in life. Which describes you better?
I grew up in a classic working class steel town and nobody in my family read books. My father quit school at 16 and my mother was a homemaker, but she taught me to read as a little boy. I somehow developed this passion for books as a kid, but I wasn't even sure I would go to college. Nobody in my family had ever been and I was very a erratic student. My senior year in high school, the first grading period in English I got a D, largely because I was sort of smart-alecky and didn't pay attention to my teachers. But I wrote to the nearest college, Oberlin, and got a scholarship and a loan and a job after some back-and-forth. I really sort of buckled down at that point [and began] reading as much as I could, feeling that it was through education I would be able to get out of Lorain, Ohio where I didn't want to spend the rest of my life.
You’ve been a proponent of stepping outside of your comfort zone when it comes to reading, not just reading bestsellers or classics, but seeking out older, more obscure books. Why do you think that's important?
Well, I've always thought people should read as broadly as possible because the books that will speak to you may not be the same books that will speak to me. If you only rely on the bestseller list you tend to have a kind of common denominator sort of book. Too often, we rely on the bestseller lists to determine our reading and we forget about all the wonderful books of the past and from other cultures. They shouldn't be forgotten. For me, it's only because these books are so wonderful that I want other people to know about them and be reminded of them. Along with that, I will say that my closest friends are genre writers and critics. I know for example, friends of mine, George R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman, who are very well-known in science fiction circles, certainly George because of Game of Thrones, but I've known them for 25 years. The books that are produced in fields that were when I was growing up usually disdained as being sort of sub-literature are actually wonderful books as we've discovered.
Nowadays, a lot of people prefer reading books digitally on a Kindle or an iPad over reading a physical copy of a book. Which do you prefer?
What I like about physical books is that they're all different. Screens make everything kind of the same, they homogenize literature. If you’re reading Raymond Chandler or Philip Marlowe, a hard-boiled mystery novel, you’d like a paperback with a leggy blonde on the cover and a guy in a trench coat. Whereas if you're reading Henry James, you probably want some stately New York edition handsome bound volume. Whereas if you read them on a screen, they both look kind of alike; they're just pixels or words. The other aspect of books I like, the physical book, is that you can have them in your day-to-day life. You put them on the shelf, you pass them by, you remember when you read them, remember that you mean to read them, you can pick them up and look at a page or two. They become a presence in your life, whereas things on screens, once they’re turned off, you kind of forget about them.
Dirda will give a keynote address on Feb. 25 about the life and works of Thornton Wilder and the merits of living a well-read life. The talk begins at 6 p.m. at the Homer Public Library.