Book critic Michael Dirda to speak to Friends of the Library

By Page H. Gifford

Anyone who reads The Washington Post will recognize Michael Dirda and his Book World critiques. His photos reflect an often serious persona, bookish and on the verge of smiling, but always surrounded by books. Those who love books and reading will have an opportunity to hear Dirda talk about his passion at an upcoming Friends of the Library event on Nov. 5, at 10 a.m.

In his memoir, cleverly and appropriately titled An Open Book which he wrote in 2003, Dirda reminisces about growing up in the heartland during the ‘50s and ‘60s when steel mills and other manufacturing were the heart and soul of the mid-western economy. Nowadays known as the rust belt, he grew up in the town of Lorain and recalls his fascination and obsession with books as a child. Unlike other children who found magic in toy stores, he found it in the local bookstore.

“All that kid wants to do is stick his nose in a book,” says Dirda’s steelworker father. Like many parents of his generation, he worried his son would pursue a frivolous profession not rooted in the practicalities of daily living. Dirda maintained his love of reading and it took him to Oberlin College.

“After a rocky start at Oberlin College, which I attended with a scholarship, loan, and a campus job, I majored in English, though I took nearly as many courses in French and history. I planned to become a college teacher and try to write stories and novels on the side,” he said.

Several years later he got his masters and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell University and was offered a few university jobs but his wife – Marian Peck Dirda, an art conservator, specializing in prints and drawings – didn’t want to leave Washington. She recently took early retirement from the National Gallery of Art.

Assuming he would become a college professor, fate took him in a different

“I never intended to become a book critic. For a while, I was a technical writer and occasional translator, but one day I wrote to the then-editor of Book World and asked if I might review something. Months later, he sent me John Gardner’s In the Suicide Mountains,” he said. “I did a brief notice of it, other commissions followed and one day he asked if I might be interested in a job. So, in 1978, I joined Book World as an assistant editor, eventually becoming deputy editor and then a senior writer and columnist. I now work on a weekly contract from the Post and write a review or essay each Sunday.”

He added that he is looking forward to sharing his thoughts and stories about The Washington Post, Book World, his career and books, or similar subjects and he is ready for lots of questions.

For more information about Michael Dirda and his work visit

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