Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review: Book by Book

by Michael Dirda
Henry Holt and Company
copyright 2005
rating: 3 out of 5

I was first attracted to this book while surfing Amazon for books about books. This was listed as a book for "others who bought (insert book) also bought these books." I have not read any of Dirda's works before, but the title definitely caught my eye. I immediately placed a hold for it at my local library.

A partial summary from the front book flap reads:
Organized by significant life events and brimming with quotations from great writers and thinkers, Book by Book showcases Dirda's capacious love for and understanding of books. Through his suggested readings and brief essays he draws us deeper into the classics, as well as lesser-known works of literature, history, and philosophy, with an eye to how we might better understand our lives.
His love and knowledge of literature is quite evident between these pages, but I don't think this was exactly the kind of book that I was looking for (although I truly have no idea what sort of book I had in mind). I also think that I picked this book up after just completing Jeremy Mercer's memoir of Shakespeare and Co., and I probably need more of a break between similar non-fiction style books. While this book did not immediately grab my attention like I had hoped, there were some literary works listed that I definitely have added to my TBR list, and he does give some very practical advice for developing reading habits, both in ourselves as well as in our children.

He also wrote a bit on book reviewers, that truly resonated with this novice blogger - which I would like to share:
It does seem to me that critics and reviewers can be loosely divided into two camps: Those who never let you forget that they are judge, jury, and, if need be, executioner; and those who humble themselves before a poem or novel, waiting for it to reveal its secrets to them. The first kind of critic aims to absorb the book; the second hopes to be absorbed by it.

In general the macho critic is more fun to read. He (or she) is opinionated, controversial, argumentative, funny. Behind the showmanship, however, often lurks an ideologue's desire to persuade: this novelist is too self absorbed; that biography is pedestrian; those reviews are wrongheaded; these stories are wonderful. For such a self-confident intellect the measure of all books becomes ultimately the critic's own taste, imagination, and convictions.

The receptive critic, by contrast, presumes that the work under review is the measure. He tries to avoide preconceptions and instead make himself open to the book's argument or its particular magic. If such a critic finds a novel boring or strange or mystifying, he more often than not assumes that he has failed to understand it. Rather than pass summary judgment, this unassertive but sensitive reader prefers to present an author's work accurately and sympathetically, employing his own artistry, sometimes considerable, in the service of the book.

Of course, most practicing critics mix these two approaches, sometimes uneasily, hoping to balance argument with information, razzle-dazzle with reverence, all the while trying to avoid the pitfalls of both.......(page 129-130)
I wonder which camp you fall into? As for me, I am definitely the second type of reviewer, always assuming that it is my fault for not "getting" the book, rather than the author's writing quality.

The other aspect of the book that I feel is worth a mention is his list of books suitable for the Guest Room Library. He defines "the essential quality of a guest-room book is that it must avoid all the normal requirements of a 'good read.' Nothing too demanding or white-knuckled suspenseful. Ideally, items should be familiar, cozy, browsable, above all soothing" (page 40).

He goes on to say that while all guest rooms should at least have the Bible, works of Shakespeare, and at least one Jane Austen novel, there are several major light-reading genres which are essential: mystery (at the top of the list is Sherlock Holmes); horror and fantasy (mostly short ghost stories that can be read in a single sitting); Humor; Biography; Poetry; Children's Classics; Deep - but not Too Deep - Thoughts; Reference; Journals and Diaries, Odds and Ends (personal favorites of the homeowner; and....just in case....Leonard Maltin's annual guide to movies.

Now I personally do not have a room of the house that is devoted to just guests, but if I were to eventually have such a room, I think I would like to create a library much like the one described above.

All in all this book was definitely worth the brief skimming, and I may perhaps pick it up again some day and read it in more detail.


  1. I would also place myself in the second category. This book looks interesting!


  2. I remember hearing about this book when it first came out. When I lived in Washington, DC, I enjoyed following his reviews in the Post.

  3. I've discovered a few books the same way. Sometimes to my advantage and sometimes not.

    His description of the two bloggers was interesting and I'm glad you shared it. I definitely fall into the receptive critic camp.

    Great review, as always, Molly!

  4. This book seems very thought provoking. I like your analysis of it. I find I am the critic who wishes to be absorbed by a book rather than the other way around. This reminds me of another book you recommended and I just got from the library - The Seven Basic Plots. I've just started it but it looks very interesting. I, too, like books about books.

  5. Doesn't sound like something I would have picked up, so thanks for the review. I don't have a dedicated guest room, either, but was given the idea of making a basket of handy items to put out for guests (toothbrush/paste, kleenex, etc) It would be fun to include a couple books. Thanks for the ideas.

    Hope you have a great New Year.

  6. I love the two parts you shared ... I never thought about guest room books but now I'm going to. (Though all my guests tend to bring their own reads and are highly opinionated ... being my family and all).

    And I think I'm a passive reviewer ... I always doubt myself when I don't "get" a book or think I'm missing something if I don't like a book others did. But I think I've grown more confident in myself since I started book blogging. The point is that you either like a book or you don't ... and I should be able to trust my own feelings about whether I like a book or not. But I certainly don't think I know it all ... just what I like!

    I might have to check this out.


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