Reading is good for you, especially if you read what the author recommends.
Dirda, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism and a longtime editor of Washington Post Book World, has jettisoned those credentials and roared out onto the road to Dr. Phil-ville in this facile, superficial work. In some ways, it’s an old-fashioned commonplace book, lardy with lists of quotations from literary notables. In others, it’s a self-help book, full of advice about how much TV children should watch (very little), how baking sugar cookies can bring the family together during the holidays and how we should be more assiduous about flossing. Organized loosely around generic topics like education, work and leisure, love and family, the text features too much platitude and not enough attitude. Sometimes even the platitudes are questionable: the author’s reiteration of the tired complaint that publishers today favor memoirs about “bad families” is undercut by the recent publication and fond reception of his own terrific good-family memoir (An Open Book, 2003). And lists—he loves lists: of books every person should read (Robinson Crusoe, Pride and Prejudice), of great novels about education (Lucky Jim, The Centaur) and love (Possession, The Dying Animal), of classical music everyone should listen to (from Wagner to Ella Fitzgerald), of significant works of moral philosophy (from Job to Jung). Like many bibliophagists, Dirda sometimes has an excessively romantic view of the power of the page. “Books,” he writes, “by their very nature and variety, help us grow in empathy for others, in tolerance and awareness.” Of course, only certain books do that—not Mein Kampf, say, and not the suddenly ubiquitous political screeds and not the mounds of literary manure dumped in bookshops by the self-help crowd.
After one treacly tribute to the freedom of the press, the author says, “That sounds corny.” It does, and so does most of this mess.