In her book, Q’s Legacy, Helene Hanff records the way in which she set out to educate herself with the help of the essays of the Cambridge Professor, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, known to his students and to the world of academe in general, simply as Q. His collection, Cambridge Lectures, is not that easy to get hold of these days, but a colleague who was retiring had a copy that he willingly passed over to me. I read these and very much enjoyed them, but they were written almost a hundred years ago and I’ve been looking for something a little more modern that would open up new areas of literature for me in the way that Q did for Hanff.
Browsing around other people’s blogs I started to come across a name which, in the UK, is almost unknown, that of Michael Dirda. As I’m sure many of you know Dirda is a columnist for the Washington Post Book World, and looking through some of those columns online I began to think that perhaps I found my modern day equivalent of Q. I hope Dirda will forgive me if I say that possibly the best word I can think of to describe his writing is promiscuous. He reads voraciously, across genre, across time period, across subject matter, and at least half of the time he’s writing about books I know nothing of.
A quick browse around the Internet revealed several collections of his writings and this morning a slim volume entitled Book by Book, popped through the letterbox. This appears to be made up of, well, I hesitate to call them essays because some appear to be lists or catalogues of names and ideas, so let us say 10 sections with such intriguing titles as The Pleasures of Learning and The Interior Library. And, at the end of the book, there is an additional section A Selective and Idiosyncratic Who’s Who, which gives brief details of just some of the authors Dirda mentions throughout this work. There are many personal favourites, Joan Aiken, Colette, Umberto Eco, even Ella Fitzgerald. But there are many more who are just names I’ve come across or, even more exciting, names that I haven’t.
I’ve made a mental note to start collecting Dirda’s online articles and I have several other collections on order, but this little book, similar in size and scope to Q’s Cambridge Lectures seems an ideal place to begin expanding my own reading experience alongside this remarkably erudite yet accessible guide. I imagine that it is inevitable that as a result the tbr pile is going to grow even higher than it is already, but there must be worse fates than to be buried under a pile of unread treasures, especially if, in order to dig one’s way out, you have to read a few unexpected gems.