The Washington Post Book World’s Pulitzer-winning book critic recalls in evocative prose his nerdy youth in Lorain County, Ohio.
Dirda (Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, 2000) grew up in the home of a bored and bitter steelworker who could not understand why his son’s nose was permanently parked in a book. Still, the elder Dirda emerges as a positive force in this marvelous memoir, nowhere more poignantly than when he advised his son, at the time feeling overmatched at Oberlin, that he just needed to work harder. Michael did, and graduated with highest honors in English. The story of the author’s life is an account of the myriad books he read, of the social consequences exacted by his nerdiness, of the adults who influenced him, of the young men he befriended, of the young women he lusted after and pursued, at times clownishly. Virtually every page is crowded with allusions to texts, accounts of how specific writers influenced him, and quotations. (Dirda was an inveterate memorizer, though his memory occasionally fails him here; he misquotes the lyrics to Mighty Mouse’s theme song and misidentifies the author of “Thanatopsis.”) As a boy he favored adventure stories; Bomba and Tarzan were a couple of jungle favorites. In junior high he met a charismatic teacher who challenged him with books that few young adolescents would today attempt, e.g., Crime and Punishment. He read the way starving omnivores eat, from Shakespeare to Dale Carnegie, from Thoreau to Lloyd C. Douglas, from Clifton Fadiman to Ayn Rand. A high-school French teacher fed him other books like bon-bons and took him and some others on an 8,000-mile car trip one summer. With puberty came clumsiness and sexual silliness (amusingly related), then it was off to nearby Oberlin, where he learned about music and art and hard work.
An effervescent yet self-effacing tale of a youngster who viewed a library as an all-you-can-eat buffet—and greedily gorged.