Rediscover Literary Joys with Michael Dirda

By Emmeline Elliott, SDSU Briggs Library

Let’s say you’re a writer. Professionally or for pleasure. You’ve been plagued with writer’s block or lack inspiration.

Or maybe you’re a reader. And you’d like to think of yourself as an avid reader, but, truth be told, you haven’t done more than skim the pages of a book in far too long.

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda may offer the cure.

Dirda is a literary journalist whose works have appeared in numerous publications, including his weekly book review column for The Washington Post since 1978. He is also one of six Pulitzer Prize winners joining the South Dakota Festival of Books with the centennial celebration of the Prize. Dirda speaks at the South Dakota State University Briggs Library on Sept. 23.

He has often been called the “best-read man in America.”

Read a handful of Dirda’s essays and reviews and you’ll find an author who mixes expertise, analysis, and personal narrative to inspire his readers. His ability to bring these elements together has been recognized time and again through the many awards and accomplishments he has earned since beginning his academic and professional career.

Dirda left the working-class neighborhood of his youth in Lorain, Ohio, to attend Oberlin College, graduating with Highest Honors in English in 1970. He then taught in France for a year as a Fulbright Scholar and attended Cornell University where he received an M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature in 1975 and 1977, respectively.

Most notably, he earned a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism in 1993 for his book reviews published in The Washington Post.

Dirda, Michael - Browsings 2015.jpgDirda has other prestigious honors credited to his name, including the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 2012 from the Mystery Writers of America for his book On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling. The group name the title the year’s best critical/biographical work. He also received an honorary doctorate of letters from Washington College in 1997 and was named a Washington Post/Duke University Fellow in 1996.

Besides The Post, Dirda’s reviews and articles have been featured in literary periodicals such as The New York Review of Books, Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Barnes & Noble Review, to name a few.

Since 1991, he has published eight books since 1991 – four collections of essays, one memoir and three “books about books,” as Dirda calls them. His most recent book, Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, gathers the essays from his one-year run at The American Scholar where wrote on weekly blog on various literary topics.

His upcoming title, The Great Age of Storytelling, focuses on popular fiction from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Dirda doesn’t mince words when he talks about choosing a career in writing.

In his keynote to the finalists of the Sophie Kerr Prize in 2013, Dirda prepared to tell those Washington College students that they were not the winners of the respected literary award.

“You will feel heartbroken for awhile,” Dirda said. “But, if you are to pursue a literary career, it’s best to get used to that feeling right away. The great French writer Colette – author of GigiCheri and many other books – once said that to be a writer was to take on a vocation of unhappiness.”


Though blunt about the realities of the writing life, Dirda was clear on why a person takes on a profession that promises such pain.

“Regardless of how good a writer you actually may or may not be, only writing seems to satisfy your soul, only writing makes you, in some sense, happy,” he said. “And I don’t mean the joy in having written, but the writing itself. One of the greatest benefits of being a journalist lies in knowing that you will always, every day or at least every week, be expected to sit down to write something. After more than 35 years of reviewing books, I still feel – when I start typing the title of the latest work I’m reviewing – a deep, deep peace. I am where I’m supposed to be.”

The sentiment can resonate with any writer at heart, and, for some, may be the necessary jumpstart to pick up the pen again.

In the same way writers find inspiration in Dirda’s words, readers, too, can be moved to return to a set-aside book or make a trip to the bookstore. Huffington Post journalist Steven Petite says Dirda’s reviews are composed “in a conversational style that makes his writing enjoyable for those who are not familiar with the works he is discussing.”

Readers of Dirda’s reviews and essays expect the author to cover a wide range of books and not simply those on the best-seller list.

“Good books, it has always struck me, can be found in every genre,” Dirda said in a 2009 interview with Locus magazine.

His reviews include classic and modern literature, history, poetry, adventure, science fiction and fantasy, biography, children’s books, European literature, crime fiction … the list goes on. His literary topics are nearly as diverse, touching on subjects like the future of reading with e-books, collecting books, and giving out-of-print books new life.

Dirda writes in his final essay of Browsings that, throughout his career, his aim has been “to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books… keep trying books outside your comfort zone. At least from time to time.”

“I’m an enthusiast for books. I try to make people excited about books, to recreate on the page the pleasure I feel about books,” Dirda said on his acceptance of the Pulitzer Prize.

The excitement and joy that Dirda finds in books is clear.

His article “A Doyle Man” in The Paris Review not only teaches a good deal about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but transports the reader to a 5th grade Michael Dirda on his first read of The Hound of Baskervilles – sitting next to the young Dirda, experiencing the anticipation and thrill of reading a Sherlock Holmes novel in his childhood living room on a stormy November evening.

Dirda credits The Hound as being “the first grown-up book I ever read – and it changed my life.”

He came to be an expert on Doyle and his characters and later was inducted as a member to The Baker Street Irregulars, a Sherlock Holmes literary society with an invitation-only membership.

With a variety of interests, Dirda will have plenty to share with audiences during the Festival of Books, Sept. 22 – 25 in Brookings.

Along with his talk “Good Reads: A Book Critic’s Perspective” at the SDSU Briggs Library on Friday, Sept. 23 at 3 pm, he joins author Marilyn Johnson for “Sustainable Reading & Book Collecting: A Conversation.” Also on Saturday, he moderates “Reflections on the Centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes” with Pulitzer Prize-winning authors T.J. Stiles, Ted Kooser, Shirley Christian and Robert Olen Butler.