Michael Dirda has to have to the best job in the world: He reads books, and writes about them, for a living. He is a longtime columnist for the Washington Post Book World, and in 1993 won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. For the past 40 years or so, Dirda has kept a “commonplace notebook, the volume into which I have copied out favorite passages from my reading … In it are poems, clever sayings, lines from Shakespeare and the Bible and many, many sentences and paragraphs from half-forgotten works of fiction and nonfiction. At least a third of the entries might be loosely categorized as aphorisms.” In his eclectic and engaging memoir Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, Dirda shares some favorite sayings from his commonplace archive. Book by Book is a paean to the act of reading as well as a meditation on the practical uses of literature in daily life. A selection from Dirda’s “life lines”:
A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. —Joseph Conrad
Where is your Self to be found? Always in the deepest enchantment you have experienced. —Hugo von Hofmannsthal
In life, I have learned, there is always worse to come. —Julian Maclaren-Ross
Who speaks of victory? To endure is everything. —Rainer Maria Rilke
To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god. —Jorge Luis Borges
Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man. —Leon Trotsky
Dirda even occasionally pens a few bon mots of his own, such as:
In digressions lie lessons.
What children behold, they become.
Dirda’s most recent book is Classics for Pleasure, a collection of personal takes on some well-known and undeservedly obscure great books. Dirda would no doubt agree with Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s aphorism:
He who reads only the classics is sure to remain up to date.