Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Shopping with the Best-Read Man in America

Michael Dirda at the 2008 Texas Book Festival,...
Michael Dirda at the 2008 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was dragging my five-year-old daughter through the musty stacks of my favorite used bookstore last spring when a middle-aged man, squatting in the Sci-Fi section next to a brimming cardboard box, caught my eye and reminded me of someone.

"Excuse me," I asked, "are you a writer?"

"I am," he said, standing up and straightening his glasses. His eyes were deep set and hard to read. He was bashful.

"Are you Michael Dirda?" I asked.

"I am."

It was him: the book critic and author, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, known apocryphally as the best-read man in America, whose essays had enticed me to read everything from Little, Big to Three Men in a Boat - and here he was, squinting his way through the lowest shelves in the same crusty bargain dungeon I came to all the time.

"Amazing. Nina, this is the man who wrote that little letter that we have in your George and Martha," I told my daughter. Nina was nonplussed.

"When I was eight, in 1992," I explained, "I wrote a letter to the Washington Post when James Marshall died and you printed it in the Book World section and even wrote a sweet little response. And her grandpa put a photocopy of that letter in The Complete George and Martha for her."

"That's incredible." He kneeled down to talk directly to Nina. "Do you like those books?" She buried her face in my leg. "Well, I love them," he said.

I told Dirda that I write about literature as well, mostly online and only semiprofessionally. He seemed amazed that a person half his age would recognize him by sight. But I had. Dirda is the kind of critic I aim to be whenever I write reviews - expert, excitable, and possessed of a catholic taste. This is of course how every book reviewer thinks of him or herself, but Dirda has the widest-ranging interests of any reader I know, and his unadorned yet eloquent style foregrounds the sheer pleasure of reading more than any critic alive.

It wasn't so bizarre that we should run into him: the Post has been his bread and butter for decades, and my family lives in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. That store, in the basement of the Wheaton Public Library, is also a magnet for any reader in the vicinity; the stock turns over constantly, the volume is overwhelming, and most books go for two dollars or less. I'd whittled away at my income ever since we moved to the area. But Dirda? The man who seems to have read everything, and then read everything about everything? What could have possibly been in that box? I sat in bed that night and thought that if you could poke around a book-hunter's paradise like that with a guy like that, you'd have a fine view of what the farthest-ranging literary mind looks like in its natural habitat.

A few months later I broke down and asked him by email: Want to go shopping? {Read on}