Friday, October 17, 2008


Well, I'm off to Capclave, Washington DC's annual SF convention. The Author Guest of Honor is the legendary James Morrow, renowned among those who know him for also being one heck of a nice guy. The Critic Guest of Honor is the equally legendary Michael Dirda, also renowned among those who know him for being one heck of a nice guy. A bit of a coincidence there, but a pleasant one.

Here's the short appreciation I wrote of Michael for the program book:

Michael Dirda

So I was sitting with three renowned science fiction writers during the down time at a literary event – Books over Brattleboro or the Short Pump Literary Festival, something like that – and I mentioned that I’d just run into Michael Dirda. One of the three, and I probably shouldn’t mention any names, remarked that he hadn’t seem Dirda for some time. “Well, he hasn’t been to a science fiction convention for years,” I replied. “He told me he’d gafiated.”

My three friends almost choked.

Michael Dirda has serious literary credentials, after all. He graduated from Oberlin College with Highest Honors, and the following year taught English in Marseille, France on a Fulbright Fellowship. He has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell, and he’s received rather a lot of honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism. He publishes in places like The New York Review of Books, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. His columns for the Washington Post Book World were one of the glories of that august institution. So what the heck was he doing using a piece of faanish slang like “gafiate”?

Quite simply, in the situation, gafiate (which, in case you don’t know, is a shortening of “getting away from it all,” and refers to the act of taking an extended holiday from either SF or fandom) was the mot juste for what Dirda meant. So he used it. The man is without pretension.

It is this quality that makes him such a fine reader.

Oh, Michael Dirda is a fine writer as well, with a lucid and compelling prose line. (And funny; if you doubt it, read his “Bookish Fantasies,” a cascade of thirty-five literary daydreams, including “Hey, Chip, this is Sherry down at the library. We’ve just gotten the new Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, and we were wondering whether you might like to take the old thirteen-volume set off our hands . . .” and “. . . pay you $10 a word . . .”) But that’s kind of a sine qua non in his line of business. It’s his special talent as a reader that makes his writings particularly valuable. He reads and enjoys books not by category or preconception but for what they actually are.

Consider his list of favorite authors: Stendhal, Chekhov, Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Nabokov, John Dickson Carr, Joseph Mitchell and Jack Vance. Somebody who was trying to impress you might throw in Jack Vance, just to let you know how eclectic his tastes are. But John Dickson Carr? Only honest admiration could have compiled a lineup like that. In one of his books he wrote that it was his intent to encourage readers "to look beyond the boundaries of the fashionable, established, or academic." To read, that is, as he does, with passion and for pleasure.

He is, it almost goes without saying, a book collector, and a serious one. But that, and the fact that he once wrote a slim paperback titled Caring for Your Books, give you exactly the wrong impression of his priorities. I saw him once look up from an examination of the rather worn contents of Gardner Dozois’s bookshelves and exclaim, “Gardner, the books on your shelves all look so delightfully read!” He sees past the superficialities.

You an see for yourself why we dedicated Dirdaphiles have such a high opinion of him by checking out one of his books (Classics for Pleasure, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, Bound to Please, An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland, and Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments) or his weekly online column, “Dirda on Books,” at

In a perfect world, the ability to read well would be particularly honored. Having him at Capclave as this year’s Critic Guest of Honor moves the world one tiny inch closer to perfection. Enjoy his presence here. That same clarity of expression found in his essays is also present in person. Michael Dirda is a terrific conversationalist.
He’s particularly good on the subject of books.


And, as always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated. Andrew the Marvellous introduces Johnny the Great! Don't miss it.


No comments: