Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Memoirs of a Meta-Author

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, writing, books, books about books

What is the difference between a columnist and a blogger? This isn't a trick question. The columnist usually gets paid by the publisher. Of course, some bloggers are earning money from their weblogs, but they are paid more directly by advertisers or by subscribers. There is also a difference of tone. Most bloggers, myself included, primarily write what pleases them, and if others like to read it also, so much the better. The tone of a columnist's writing can range from very personal to hortatory to documentary, but is more outwardly focused than the usual weblog.

Here, a book combines literary criticism with a weblog: Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, by Michael Dirda. The 52 chapters are weblog posts from a one-year assignment with American Scholar. The posts average about 1,000 words—similar in size to my posts in this weblog—which is about 2-3 times as long as is "recommended" in the various "advice for bloggers" pages. But if ever someone could merge column writing with blogging, it is he.

And if ever someone made a living out of writing about writing, Dr. Dirda is the prince of such meta-writers. His 1992 Pulitzer Prize was conferred upon his columns of book reviews. The columns/posts in Browsings are more personal than critical (in the positive sense of the word: evaluative). He loves books, and by his account reads such a great deal I am rather amazed he has time to write about it.

I couldn't really categorize the chapters into a coherent set of bunches. I thought I had wide-ranging interests, but reading this book put me in the presence of a mind of Galactic proportions (yes, that is a bit of a pun. He reads mostly fiction, including a large measure of science fiction). I can only systematize thus far: Some of the chapters are focused on lists of books or book sets, and some (the smaller quantity) are not.

For example, the chapter "Wonder Books" contains an annotated list of books be bought on a certain day at Wonder Books and Video in Frederick, MD. This is one of the shorter lists, 19 volumes, but 15 of the book titles are followed by a half-page mini-review. This is also the longest chapter, 11 pages (Yes, I counted them all from the table of contents. Two others approach 10 pages in length. And just FYI, early on the chapters average about 5 pages, but later they average 7).

The author describes himself as an "almost hoarder". He keeps shelves in several rooms full of books, but rotates them from piles and piles of boxes in the basement. In one chapter, "The Evidence in the (Book) Case", he lists the books at his bedside: at least 33 volumes, though some not mentioned as such might be multi-volume titles. I reckon that is enough to fill four feet of shelving, or two shelves of a substantial night stand.

Looking around, I am glad I learned to draw the line and limit my collecting of early books and "firsts" to a couple of dozen, the rest of my shelving being devoted to books my wife and I have found useful. In this "Cave", I have forty feet of shelving, very nearly filled. One four-foot shelf contains many years of Scientific American in box-sleeves and shorter runs of a few other magazines for which I keep only the past two or three years. Another three-foot shelf is mostly filled with our cook books, and the one just below it, with my wife's language-instruction volumes (she worked as a language tutor for many years). In an upstairs bedroom with built-in shelving, the "Library", another thirty feet are about 80% filled, sharing space with some knick-knacks and pictures in frames. That room's collections are primarily related to spiritual matters and Bible study.

Nearly all the books I've reviewed in this weblog the past ten years were borrowed from the local library. I don't feel the need to keep a copy of a book that I plan to read only once. About once yearly I like a book I've read well enough to go out and buy (or use Amazon to get it). Otherwise, my night stand contains, in addition to the one I'm currently reading, three or four volumes waiting in the wings, plus an omnibus volume of Shakerspeare's plays that I occasionally peruse, and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen J Gould, from which I read a page or two at a time. I do intend to finish it…

One of the shortest chapters, "Grades", at four pages, is a personal musing about having to give grades to the students he teaches, and his own spotty grade record. He dislikes grades, though nobody has suggested a better way to efficiently evaluate learning, concluding, "People are individual, so how can you reduce them to an A, a B, or a C? Or even, sometimes, to a D – along with an invitation to stop by for a quiet chat with Dr. Calta, the high school principal?"

I have sometimes wondered what the bookish life is like. Reading Browsings has gone a long way toward satisfying that itch.

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