Winner Throws Bookworms a Treat
a glassy-eyed college student desperately scrounging around for
that one last factoid to add to a midterm paper, the internet seems
to contain the answers to all the troubles in the world. But to
lead a life of consequence, according to Pulitzer-Prize-winning
critic Michael Dirda (OC ’70), surfing the ’net will
never serve as a substitute to reading books in the flesh.
Dirda, a native of Lorain and Senior Editor for the Washington Post
Book World, made the trip to campus to speak at the “Friends
of the Oberlin College Library Annual Dinner.”
This event, hosted last Saturday in Carnegie’s Root Room,
was attended by an overwhelmingly elderly crowd of Oberlin booklovers,
a handful of collegiate booklovers (some smacking their lips over
the prospect of a non-CDS meal option) and College president Nancy
Following Dye’s lengthy introduction after the meal, dressed
in her usual sailor-blue dress, Dirda took over the podium and bantered
with the audience for a few minutes in his sport jacket and tie.
He called himself “extemporaneous” in ideals, saying
that all children should grow up taught, among other things, a foreign
language and the basics of ballroom dancing, both of which he admitted
he lacked in know-how. He also admitted that he rather disliked
lectures like the one at present because he enjoyed talking to people
“I thought this would be a pretty gusty event, so I decided
to prepare a talk,” Dirda said, finally looking down at his
papers. “So here it is. By the way, they asked me when I came
to talk for 35 to 40 minutes, so please — sit back, get comfortable
Dirda’s lecture, “Looking for a Good Time: Reading,
Libraries and the World of Books,” combined humor, personal
anecdotes and words of wisdom that flowed together seamlessly in
his refined and polished prose. He began with a critique of the
library, a sacred place in his mind, which he believes has been
run over in modern times by computers and information technology.
He lamented how schools were no longer interested in teaching kids
how to read and write, but how to turn on the a computer and use
the internet. “Instead of literacy, we now teach computer
literacy,” he said.
Retracing his roots to Lorain, Dirda recalled his father, a carpenter,
who felt that books were important and built a bookcase in his living
room that he filled with remainders and duplicates so that visitors
to the house might believe that it was a well-read family. As Dirda
could recall, his father never opened a single book that was put
on those shelves.
When it was discovered later that one of the random selections was
worth over 200 dollars, the senior Dirda replied: “I have
two more copies of that book, you know.” In an attempt to
fill the shelves, he had been secretly buying books in bulk and
placing them in various places around the bookcase. Young Dirda
read all of these books, from home-improvement manuals to obscure
authors that went in and out of print in an instant.
“For a young person, I cannot think of a better collection
of books,” Dirda said.
Dirda continued speaking about the benefits of reading, which he
said everyone should try and do at least 10 hours a week.
“I take the Washington Metro to and from work…just to
give me 45 minutes or so of reading time each way,” Dirda
said. “If I do another half an hour or so in the afternoon,
I am already at my goal. Everyone should try and get through at
least one good book a week.”
Quoting famous authors, Dirda concluded his lecture with a critique
of books themselves and their place in peoples’ lives.
According to Kafka, “The books we need…serve as the
axe for the frozen sea within us.”
But Dirda had more uplifting quotes, such as one by Emerson: “Books
want us to live lives of consequence.”
After the talk, Dirda stayed for a few questions from the crowd,
talking candidly about his wife, an OC graduate of ’72, and
his experience with the Washington Post Book World.
He hinted that, while he is the Senior Editor of that publication,
he is thinking about moving on soon to other endeavors.