Tag Archives: Michael Dirda

A Reader’s Reader

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
                                                          —Jorge Luis Borges

The following column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 May 2017.

Tom Shroder, Jenny Yacovissi, and Michael Dirda at the 2017 Washington Writers Conference.

I had the distinct pleasure recently of being on a panel at the Washington Writers Conference with Tom Shroder—author, ghostwriter, journalist, and long-time editor of the Washington Post Magazine—and Michael Dirda, even longer-time book critic at the Washington Post and elsewhere. We were discussing the fuzzy lines that separate memoir, family history, and fiction.

As part of preparing for the panel, I read two of Michael’s several books: his most recent, Browsings, and his memoir of the first third of his life through college, An Open Book.

One thing that both books drove home for me is what a sweeping diversity of books Dirda reads and loves. You will not find a more erudite critic of the highest of high-brow literature, and yet he is an unapologetic fan of sci-fi, horror, and other sub-genres of pulp fiction. He is a walking object lesson in the value of having wide, all-embracing tastes in reading.

An Open Book ripples out from a central image of toddler Michael crawling into his mother’s lap as she sat on the floor each night to read to him, and expands in concentric circles from home to neighborhood to city and beyond. What I loved most about the memoir was how closely he was able to map favorite, memorable books to when he discovered them, practically year by year, and describe what they meant to him then and now, as though he had just read them. In some cases, he had just read them, because not only is he a prolific reader, he’s a prolific re-reader.

For someone like me, who thinks she reads a lot, attempting to comprehend the breadth of Dirda’s lifetime of reading is humbling. (As I said during our panel session, “I read Michael Dirda when I have delusions of adequacy, and that snaps me right out of it.”) At the end of the book, he includes two lists of the “major” books he’d read by age sixteen and by the end of high school—meaning not including the dime-store stuff—many of which I still have never read.

But reviewing those lists did prompt me to think about the books that forged my love of reading. Those early ones were T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, A. J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (and, yes, I fell in love with the wildly politically incorrect Mr. Rochester), Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. I loved Greek mythology, and I’m pretty certain that I had read The Illiad and The Odyssey by early high school. Memorizing poetry was a favorite pastime, and I remember reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” for my sixth grade class. (They didn’t appreciate that nearly as much as when I recited the well-known limerick about the pelican, after which the teacher told me to sit down. I said, “But I’m not done,” and she replied, “Oh, yes, you are.”)

Dirda recounts how it bothered his hard-working, mechanically inclined father that his one son was such a bookworm. These days we tend to worry that kids aren’t reading enough, given all the electronic competition and our decreasing attention spans. Yet I just spent all of today at the magnificent Gaithersburg Book Festival, where each year the children’s authors are mobbed. Watching that recurring scene—children clutching books in their arms, dancing a little in line as their excitement threatens to spew like over-carbonated soda—always makes me hopeful that we continue to raise generations of avid readers.

I’m with them. Reading both An Open Book and Browsings made me eager to double-down on my reading intake, though with a full-time job and lots of other commitments, it’s hard to see where it fits in. I know I’ll never catch up to Michael Dirda’s reading accomplishments, but I can certainly give them a run for the money.

A friend of mine once observed of me, sadly, that she worries that I’ll end up as a hermit, shut into my house and surrounded by nothing but books. I’m sure I got a dreamy look about me as I sighed and said, “And that’s how I’ll know I’m in heaven.”

Happy reading!

Jenny’s Spring 2017 Calendar: Join Me at GBF!

Hope you’ll join me for one or all of these upcoming events:

Inspirational Women in Literature virtual conference, Saturday, March 18th from 9-6. These are some high-powered women! I’ll be speaking at 9:40 about some the strong women who inspired me to write. Contact me for login information.

Maryland Writers’ Association 2017 Writers Conference, Saturday, March 25th at the Crowne Plaza in Annapolis, MD from 8-7. I’ll be presenting “From Family to Fiction” at 11:00, and I’m thrilled to be following the always-inspirational Austin Camacho, though he’s a tough act to follow.

Kensington Day of the Book, Sunday, April 23rd on Howard Avenue in downtown Kensington from 11-4. It will be tough to beat the beautiful weather we had last year, but this is a vibrant and growing book festival with lots to see and do no matter what the weather holds. It’s great for families! Plus, I’ll be sure to have good chocolate!

Books Alive! 2017 Washington Writers Conference, Friday and Saturday, April 28th-29th at the College Park Marriott Conference Center (Friday from 6-8:30 pm and Saturday 8-5). I’m chairing this conference, which is one reason I’d love to see everyone there, but I’m also on a panel with luminaries Michael Dirda, long-time book critic at the Washington Post, and Tom Shroder, author, ghostwriter, and former editor of the Washington Post magazine. We’ll be talking about “The Twilight Zone: Between Memoir, Fiction, and Family History” at 2:50 pm with Chloe Miller, memoir writing instructor at Politics and Prose.

Gaithersburg Book Festival, Saturday, May 20th on the City Hall green in downtown Gaithersburg from 10-6. This is one of the largest book festivals in the DMV and draws nationally and internationally known authors. I’ll be moderating the Historical Mysteries panel with authors David O. Stewart and Burt Solomon at 11:15 in the Dashiell Hammett Pavilion, and signing books from Politics and Prose after that.

There’s Still Time

I feel as though I’m always late. And I don’t mean on the little day-to-day stuff, though I’ll be the first to admit I feel my personal clock runs perpetually about five minutes behind everyone else’s. No, I’m talking about a more existential kind of lateness, like that the moment I finally decided to start writing my novel was the moment the Washington Post stopped printing “Book World” as a stand-alone weekly feature. (And has Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Post done anything to hint at its resurrection? No. He just buys Goodreads instead. That’s fine, Jeff. We were pretty sure you weren’t serious about the paper anyway.) And then, with just a few months to go before publication of my novel—oh, so close—here is Jonathan Yardley clocking out after “thirty-three years and four months—a third of a century almost to the minute” and three thousand book reviews. Yup, I’m late again.

Arguably, I’ve been late for a long time: my own almost-third of a century since I was propelled out into the world clutching my diploma, the one that trumpeted my degree of limited practical application. Perhaps the stark relief of securing a job ahead of graduation stunned me into forgetting my love of writing. And I forgot for a long time.

As I approached thirty, my mother gave me the excellent advice to choose what I did with my life, and to guard against allowing my life to simply happen to me. “Because before you know it, you’ll wake up one day, look in the mirror and say, ‘When did I get old?’ And you’ll realize you didn’t do what you wanted to do.” Roger Waters of Pink Floyd grasped this unhappy phenomenon early on, when at the advanced age of 29 he wrote the lyrics to “Time”:

And then one day you find / Ten years have got behind you. / No one told you when to run. / You missed the starting gun.

and this:

The time is gone, the song is over. / Thought I’d something more to say.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t heed Mom’s (or Roger’s) advice as completely as I might have. If I had, perhaps my first novel would not have waited until the year I turn 53 to make its debut.

On the other hand, this puts me in the same class with Richard Adams, who was my age the year that his first novel was published. With its tale of imperiled talking rabbits, Watership Down was an unlikely runaway bestseller in 1972. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes came out when he was 66, and the great granddaddy of all late-to-the-party writers is perhaps Norman Maclean, whose transcendent A River Runs through It and Other Stories was published when he was 73.

It’s probably a little silly to be ticking these examples off as though they prove something—perhaps nothing better than that there are not so many examples to be ticked off. But I’m not the only one who’s taking a bit of heart from the concept. Electric Literature recently posted an interactive graphic put out by Blinkbox Books showing the age at which well-known authors published their breakout books, to prove that many great authors flower later in life. It’s perhaps telling, though, that Adams is the oldest debut author listed.

There are, however, other examples besides McCourt and Maclean who didn’t make Blinkbox’s cut, and I came across one of these recently as I struggled to catch up with the newspapers that constantly pile up in my house. (As I said, I am late with everything. We can debate the time-investment-to-value-realized calculus of reading three-week-old newspapers some other time.) The item in question was a review by Michael Dirda of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. Dirda caught me right away when he said, “But few of us will ever manage such dramatic rebirths as Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), who never published a book until she was just shy of 60—yet became one of Britain’s most admired novelists.”

Reviews like this make me wonder what the heck I’ve been reading for the last thirty years. Why am I not already familiar with Fitzgerald’s work? It seems that in the time I haven’t been writing, I’ve been doing precious little reading also, which is a far, far more dire waste of time. More than anything, realizing how much good reading I haven’t been doing is what makes me want to find the giant rewind button.

I understand, of course, that I could just as easily have reached my 53rd year without getting a book published. It’s simply painful to acknowledge that it’s been longer than a generation since I could have made anyone’s list of young writers to watch. As we all discover eventually, you cannot unwaste time; you can only resolve not to waste any more of it. I hope I’ve learned that lesson in enough time.