Book Shopping with the Best-Read Man in America


Arts & Culture

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

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?

He was already in the store, browsing the lonely shelf of VHS tapes, when I arrived at our appointed time, four thirty P.M. We were dressed so similarly I worried other people might think I was some kind of acolyte: nice suburban earth tones, green Eddie Bauer/L.L. Bean coats. In our emails Dirda had seemed bemused that anyone would want to follow him around as he shopped, but he went to work once we said our hellos.

“Let’s go over to the entrance, pretend we walked in together.” He walked fast.

We stopped first at a tall, narrow shelf along the arterial walkway of the store, a shelf I’d never noticed before. “I always begin at the classic editions,” Dirda said. He scanned deliberately, pulling out any volume whose spine was blank just to make sure it wasn’t some hidden gem. I asked if he stuck to the same itinerary each time he came here.

“Yeah, more or less. Sometimes I skip a section.”

And how often did he shop at this place anyway?

“Eh, about once a week or so. I work from home so this is my break.” He browsed as he talked, pulling out illustrated volumes like The Green Fairy Book and Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop. Nothing worth hanging on to, but still he bent down to complete the stack.

“Always bend down,” he said. “That’s how you find the sweetest strawberries.” And there it was, the day’s first catch: a German edition of Hamlet.

“The Schlegel and Tieck translations are classics in themselves.” He put the book under his arm.

“I’m just a sucker for pretty books,” Dirda explained as we turned into the kids’ section. “Anything glossy and new is probably not interesting.”

And how many of these pretty things does he own, anyway?

“Impossible to say,” he said, reaching for a hardcover of The Wind and the Willows. “Maybe ten thousand? Most are in boxes. I have a storage unit, too. I keep the ones I haven’t read on the shelves in my living room to pressure myself.” I’m familiar with this tactic. The largest shelf in my office at home is filled with unread books, most purchased at this very bookstore.

The Grahame didn’t hold his interest, so we turned around and started on the picture books. He lingered at the Sci-Fi/Series shelf, where yellow and blue Hardy Boys hardcovers dominated. He sighed. “I check every time for Rick Brant’s ‘Electronic Adventure’ series and usually get nothing. Also anything Tom Swift. I love that stuff. Boy heroes.” Having exhausted that shelf, he led me down the walkway toward the classics.

Without a pause he found Arnold Bennett’s The Card in a Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic edition, the kind with the mint-green spine. This was a book Dirda had read before, and the kind of glossy candy he’d just advised me to avoid. He studied it for a moment; then it went under his arm.

As if he hadn’t just notched a trade paperback in his elbow, Dirda expressed a fondness for “proper editions,” not necessarily first but something close, the better to protect the “glamour” of the book. He prefers hardcovers, a point on which we disagree strongly, though I didn’t bother to argue.

We continued down the Classics section. “If you haven’t read Pym, this is the one,” he said, picking up an orange-spine pocket-size Penguin edition of Poe’s only novel. “It’s edited and annotated by Harold Beaver, whose work with Moby-Dick is also great.”  Whenever I looked at a recommendation and put it back he seemed disappointed.

He paused at Stendhal, who in a couple different interviews he’s identified as his favorite writer. A clothbound, jacketless copy of The Private Diaries of Stendhal caught his eye and he began to flip through. Then he stuffed it back on the shelf dismissively and pointed out the librarian chickenscratch added to the spine in white marker. “You never want to have a book that ugly,” he explained.

Dirda zoomed through the classics, picking up mainly things he’d already read just to revisit them. He was compelled to flip through a hardcover of Twain’s Letters from the Earth, an edition he remembered reading as a young man. It was edited by Charles Neider, who compiled the first published edition of Twain’s autobiography, and according to Dirda, “Anything Neider is suspicious. He plays fast and loose.” Nevertheless, Letters from the Earth went under the arm.

So this is how a man acquires 10,000-odd books, more than he could ever display or read. It’s a combination of maniacal persistence and utter nostalgic whimsy. You have to be willing to search high and low for a potential beauty, but most of the time you’ll take a Book Club hardcover of a book you don’t like if it reminds you of something from your past.

As if to illustrate the point, Dirda found a mass-market paperback of Black Alice, by Thomas Disch and John Sladek. Dirda was a friend of Disch until the sci-fi author killed himself in 2008. “He was a wonderfully cynical man,” Dirda said. “I have a first edition of this but I’ll get it anyway.”

Another nostalgic goldmine: M.F.K. Fisher’s Two Towns in Provence. “An incredible writer,” he said. “I reviewed the Marseilles book at the Post and I read the Aix-en-Provence book to prepare. She roomed in Aix with a Madame Wytenhove, who I also lived with, back in 1968. So Fisher and I shared a bed, albeit twenty years apart.” Despite all this, he left the book behind.

“Oh, and here’s the greatest book ever,” he said a minute later, pulling down a trade paperback of Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel. “I use it when I teach writing.” I couldn’t resist that recommendation, matched as it was with years of guilt for never having read Mitchell.

We crossed the walkway and entered the Sci-Fi, Horror, Fantasy, and Mystery stacks. Here is where Dirda really came to life. He first pulled down a copy of his friend Alberto Manguel’s brick-sized omnibus Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Fiction. “Absolutely brilliant,” he said, and though it looked like a ton of fun, the spine was cracked in multiple places, so I demurred.

Near the floor, Dirda found a third-edition hardcover of Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. He was enchanted. It went on the top of the pile, which was now resting nearby on the cement floor. “I’ve been thinking about him since he died, but I haven’t read Bradbury in a while,” he explains.

“Will you be able to read that soon?” I asked.

He laughed at the very idea. “No, definitely not.”

He found more books by Disch and three hardcovers by L.P. Davies, which he studied for a second and then tossed in the pile.

“I like pretty much any kind of sci-fi,” Dirda explained, “But especially nineteenth-century lost civilization novels.” He then found a gleaming copy of The World’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 2, which looked like it hadn’t been read or touched since the late 1960s. “It looks and feels English,” Dirda said, running his fingers along the edges of the cover. Indeed, it was a little narrow and tall for a typical American hardcover. He took it. Then another, more beaten-up hardcover: a first edition of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, which he said was stylistically equivalent to Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. He took that too.

Dirda’s haul had become unwieldy. “At this point, I get a box,” he said, and then disappeared around the corner, leaving me amid the walls of neon fonts and cartoon rayguns. When he returned he held up the old cardboard and explained, sage-like, “Always get one with handles.”

Dirda found a copy of The Voyage to Arcturus and held it out to me, calling it a “gnostic fantasy.” This particular copy featured an introduction by the nature writer Loren Eiseley, whom I love; I was glad to see a familiar name. “Eiseley’s so wonderful,” I said, hoping Dirda might agree. But his mind was elsewhere, namely a group of mass-market paperbacks at knee-height.

“Oh, here we go,” he said, kneeling down quickly. They were the six volumes of Fritz Lieber’s “Swords” series, apparently. “I have these books, so I shouldn’t even be holding them,” Dirda said, staring at them longingly. Then he put the whole group in the box. I was beginning to suspect that, if freed from obligations to family, career, and basic sustenance, Dirda would gladly lock himself in a room full of yellowing paperbacks with spaceships on the cover. I asked him if there was any variety of pulp he couldn’t abide.

“Westerns,” he said immediately. “It’s the one genre I don’t know much about. Though I love the best ones: Little Big Man and Lonesome Dove.” More books came dancing out in his hands: Jan Potocki’s The Sargasso Manuscript, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, a compilation called Nightmare Age edited by Frederik Pohl, Thorne Smith’s Night Life of the Gods. He then found a copy of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and held it in the loving way I was beginning to recognize. “Now this,” he said, “this is one of the great books of our time.” I have a copy at home, bought years earlier on the strength of a Dirda essay. For probably the fiftieth time, I resolved to it read it imminently.

We entered the Mystery section. “I’d love to see more fifties paperback originals in this place,” he said, scanning. Then he happened on an ancient jacketless black artifact on the highest shelf, Dorothy Sayers’s Omnibus of Crime. Of all the books I looked at that night, this was the one that Dirda sang the highest praise for. I thought he might sit and read all of its 700-odd pages right there in the aisle. “It’s half thriller stuff, half horror,” he said, with the kind of disbelieving glee that I remember feeling when I first discovered you could mix Slurpee flavors.

He lamented that contemporary authors didn’t read Agatha Christie—“They could learn how to plot”—but for the most part Dirda was quiet in these stacks. His most recent book concerned Arthur Conan Doyle, and he said he was currently reviewing a new collection where crime authors pick their favorite novels. For this reason I suspect that the Mystery section was as close as I got to seeing Dirda work. He was leisurely but intent, offering a quick summation of nearly every author’s career as we moved through the alphabet. He made recommendations, of course: Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, Harry Kemelman’s The Nine-Mile Walk, dozens more, mostly British stuff from the twenties through the forties. He liked “Golden Age mysteries,” he said, “books with a serious puzzle.” He made a forceful case for Ross Thomas’s Chinaman’s Chance, even recalling its byzantine opening line from memory before opening the book to check himself. Out of respect for that display of belle lettristic muscle, I took the ex-library, shifted-spine hardcover under my own arm as we moved toward the History section.

Looking at The Oxford Book of Exploration, Dirda mused, “Any Oxford book of this-or-that is worth getting, though I don’t care much about exploration.” At which point a mustachioed man appeared and greeted Dirda. “Hi, Dan,” Dirda replied, as if he’d seen the guy ten minutes ago. “John, this is Dan Smith. Dan, John.” It turned out that Dan was a fellow collector and seller, also scavenging. They’d both worked at the same crummy D.C. bookshop decades ago. “No money, we worked for trade,” Dirda explained. I took this to be the book-addict equivalent of being “in the shit.”

Dan was disappointed by the stock these days. He’d been looking for first-edition early John McPhee, stuff like Oranges and The Headmaster. “I did find a good Zola bio that you might be interested in,” said Dan. “Left it over there for you.” Dirda didn’t look up from a first-edition hardcover of Edward Sevareid’s World War II reportage. “Selection’s always spotty in a place like this,” Dan continued. “You’re stuck with whatever’s left after the employees take the first look.”

“That’s the lay of the land in these places,” Dirda agreed. They sounded like veteran border patrol cops looking at a lawless Mexican town through the chain-link.

We went to Biography/Memoir, where Dirda plucked out a few things without taking them: Kenneth Clarke’s Another Part of the World; The Man Who Knew Infinity; a biography of the author of Goodnight Moon; a charmingly decrepit copy of Goodbye to All That. Toward the end he saw Dan’s Zola bio. It was a hardcover, kind of drab. “It’s a nice book for a short life,” Dirda said noncommittally. “I think I reviewed it.” Then he tossed it in the box.

We’d left our piles back in Mysteries, and since Dirda appeared to be slowly accepting the fact that we’d picked all we could, he led me back. I asked him what went into his final considerations.

“Cost. The likelihood that I might read it. Scarcity,” he said, in no apparent order of priority. Lording over a pile of a twenty or thirty books, he told me, “I haven’t found anything extraordinary.” Dirda held up two copies of A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage and admitted, “It’s a question sometimes of whether I like the covers.” He opted for the more classic block-letters-and-lunar-hellscape edition. When he went to reshelve the other we suddenly began browsing again, like partiers grabbing a cocktail after putting their coats back on. I recognized this junkie crawl, the last-ditch attempt to find some astonishing rarity before quitting for the day.

But this time I felt armed with expert knowledge. I ended up selecting some books I’d never heard of an hour before but which I now recognized as masterworks: Trent’s Last Case, by E.C. Bentley; an Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop; and a wonderfully titled novel, The Three Coffins, by John Dickson Carr. When Dirda put his paperback of Black Alice in the no-go pile, I swooped it up and exchanged it with Chinaman’s Chance. Dirda disapproved. “Chinaman’s Chance is the better novel,” he said, a little sad for my bad judgment. But I had a real strategy in mind here: a handful of classics, all in old but solid editions with lovely cover art, and an attractive odd duck thrown in just to feel adventurous. I felt good. It would be eight dollars well spent, including Up in Old Hotel.

It was past seven o’clock. Dark had fallen and the shop would be closing soon. Dirda’s final pile included the Bradbury, Davies, Twain, the Zola bio, and an extremely handsome book of Cézanne prints that he’d poached, in passing, from the Art shelf. There were others, things I didn’t recognize and things that looked, in all honesty, like juvenile garbage. But if I’d learned anything by following him around, it was that you don’t get to be the best-read man in America by giving a damn about someone else’s taste. You buy and read books that entice you for small reasons like a good cover or an intelligent introduction, books that appeal to your eccentricities. You keep as many books as possible nearby because they are in fact the very record of your eccentricities.

“Are you hungry?” Dirda asked as we lined up to pay. But I had to decline and get home to my family. So I waited for him as he made his purchase, then walked him out to the parking lot and thanked him for letting me eavesdrop on his off-time. He was grateful as ever but couldn’t shake my hand; he was holding both box handles and leaning toward his car. Time to welcome the new beauties home.

John Lingan’s writing has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Awl, and other places. He’s working on a memoir about becoming a father in college. Follow him @busybeinglingan.