Plot or Premise
The author is a book reviewer for the Washington Post; this is the story of his life up until graduation from university.
What I Liked
Dirda was recommended to me by a colleague from work, whose appetites for reading are far more literary than mine. He actually recommended Bound to Please, which is a collection of Dirda’s reviews of more literary prose from throughout history, but I tripped over this book first. I’m quite glad I did as I probably won’t read the collection of essays until I’ve read most of the tomes reviewed, but An Open Book is a fantastic autobiography.
It reads in some place like Angela’s Ashes without the darkness of Irish poverty. However, it is not without conflict or family dysfunction during the author’s childhood, and he tells the story in places with openness and unashamed personal bias.
The main part of the story recounts Dirda’s intellectual progress as he moved through comic strips from the newspaper (p.49), pun and joke books (everyone sing: “great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts”!), the TAB book club (p.66), the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift series (p.90), a brief stint with romance novels (p.201), and the importance of great literature to challenging society and even changing history (p.290). It also includes his non-literary education – playing with BB guns (p.81), understanding firsthand how hard his father’s job was (p.185), learning about art and music (p.267), the ceasing to care about grades when writing essays and the corresponding improvements in marks (p.310), the contribution of early influences in his life to later character traits (p.320), and looking back at one’s life (p.321).
The book recounts his life relatively linearly in time, yet with lots of interesting digressions that veer away from developments in his personal life and situation with the texts he was reading at the time.
What I Didn’t Like
It would have been interesting to see more of the reactions from teachers throughout the author’s life, including perhaps even tracking some of them down. It is hard to imagine exactly how certain ones would have reacted to his precocious reading of more advanced novels, and the existing allusions to some of their reactions are rudimentary at best. As well, the final decision (to become a freelance journalist upon leaving university) is rushed in the story, and negates much of the relaxed pace to that point.
The Bottom Line (★★★★☆)
See the early influences on a literary book reviewer.