Pulitzer-Prize Winner Throws Bookworms a Treat
By Douglass Dowty

For 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 Dye.
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 individually.
“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 and relax.”
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.

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