Book by Book



Celebrate Reading Michael Dirda’s Book by Book is not only a delight to read, but also a gentle reminder of what literature means to our lives. A small hard-bound volume with a modest cover, it has an old-fashioned 19th century aura about it. A professional reviewer and columnist for theWashington Post Book World, Dirda won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism after a long writing career, but in Book by Book it is his life-long love of reading that he celebrates. For Dirda, a work of art is primarily concerned with beauty, and all his life he has looked to books as a guide for how to live gracefully in the world.

An Idiosyncratic List of Favourites His goal in writing Book by Book was to create something that may be “read slowly, browsed in and returned to”. He is interested in the ways in which books intersect with our lives and sees them “as instruments of self-explorations”. The chapters are organised thematically around life’s major experiences—learning, work, leisure, love, and spirit, for example. For each of the themes, Dirda includes exquisite passages and meaningful quotes from the best of Western literature, and he offers strong opinions on which books should be required reading and which authors write the most profoundly. These are highly personal, idiosyncratic lists. And provocative. You and I might each make our own lists, quote the passages that mean the most to us, name the most important books and authors in our view—and come up with an entirely different result.

As a matter of fact, Dirda anticipates that his readers might disagree and encourages reading Book by Book with a pencil in order to make notes in the margins, to personalise it with titles of books that have special meaning to our lives, to reflect on the ways books have touched us.

Live Large through Literature His choices tend to underscore the complexity of life. He shuns easy answers, the narrowing of experience and “guru-like pronouncements”. Instead, he rejoices in “living large”, which comes with second-guessing, misdirection and the freedom to make mistakes. There are, after all, no straightforward answers. Great literature requires the time and the space to ponder all alternatives.

If writing, as many claim, connects us to our own consciousness, then reading allows us to experience the unique consciousness of others. It takes us to different worlds, shows us other perspectives and broadens our humanity. We can be grateful, then, for the individual struggle each writer undertakes to produce works that intersect with our lives in deep and unexpected ways.


  1. Hi Adair,

    Just curious to know… what is that picture of the bookshelf? Do you know where it’s from, or where one could get a print of it?


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