Used-Book Shopping with a Literary Critic

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used books on shelves

Here’s a gem:  a man runs into one of his favorite reviewers, Michael Dirda, the so-called “Best-Read Man in America,” and asks to accompany him through a used-book shop. This little essay is kind and light-hearted. It doesn’t try to be high-minded. John Lingan focuses on the more surprising elements of Dirda’s taste:  the science fiction and mystery books. But the remarkable aspect of this essay is Lingan’s portrayal of the way-of-being of a ‘literary person.’ The nature of Dirda’s love of books comes through quite well. He wants not only good books but good-looking books too. Lingan writes,

So this is how a man acquires 10,000-odd books, more than he could ever display or read. It’s a combination of maniacal persistence and utter nostalgic whimsy. You have to be willing to search high and low for a potential beauty, but most of the time you’ll take a Book Club hardcover of a book you don’t like if it reminds you of something from your past.

The tone of the essay, in some ways, recalls Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” though Benjamin’s philosophical leaning certainly adds another dimension to his experience. Both essays portray the power of a book to transport, not only through its plot and subject but through its existence as a mere object:  its title, its shape, its weight, and its color. Both essays speak to the power of a book to enchant and enrich the mind. I’ll end this post with a question suggested by Lingan’s essay:  If books weren’t worth reading, why else would grown men be searching for them in a cramped basement?

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