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A READING LIFE

Birth of a bookworm: Dirda's ode to a life in words

Three years ago I sat in a pub in Edinburgh being interviewed by a journalist who held a PhD in American literature. He kept asking about literary journalism in the States, and I kept insisting, to his bemusement, then his incredulity, that there was none. That there was precious little venue for same. There were only, on the one hand, academics, and on the other, book reviewers.

Then I came up for air, head rising like the Loch Ness monster over the rim of my coffee cup, and with two words voided my own assertion.

Michael Dirda.

He's been for years a beacon and inspiration for many of us, and - always - a champion of literature of every persuasion. He's one of the few professional bookmen, for example, who takes science fiction seriously, and who knows whereof he speaks. He has written on contemporary novels, children's books, romances, adventure stories, history, biography, Victorian novels, translations, French literature. (His own PhD is in comparative literature.) He is first and foremost, as any good critic should be, an enthusiast. Behind his thoughtful, measured prose and what he himself deems ''a wistful, retrospective nature, veering between melancholy and a kind of humorous self-deprecating playfulness,'' there's always a kid wanting to say, ''Hey, look what I found!'' The kid wants you to find it too. And he has every reason to believe you'll be as taken with it as he is - how could you not be?

''An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland'' (Norton, $24.95) is more than anything a portrait of that kid. Never mind the PhD. Never mind his Pulitzer, or an earlier collection titled ''Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments.'' Or those columns for The Washington Post that are the first thing I go to when the computer gets booted up on Sunday mornings. This is about that kid from small-town Ohio, taking refuge from the world and at the same time finding his way into the world, discovering the shape of the world - miraculously - through books.

''Mine, it now seems, may be the last generation to value the traditional bound book as the engine of education, culture, and personal advancement,'' Dirda writes in the preface. In one of the epigraphs for a chapter he quotes Benjamin Jowett: ''We have sought truth, and sometimes perhaps found it. But have we had any fun?'' In another, James Agee surfaces: ''Against time and the damages of the brain/Sharpen and calibrate.'' Those seem the poles.

This memoir may indeed, as Dirda suggests, be preaching to the choir. Who but readers, after all, will read it, and find fond remembrance in passages such as the following?

''Living in a room of my own, alone on the ground floor, I could usually stay up late with Dante's 'Inferno' or Mickey Spillane's 'I, the Jury' ('How could you?... It was easy, I said') - at least until my worn-out mother would notice the light, shuffle downstairs wrapped in an old housecoat, her hair in plastic curlers, and order me with maternal gruffness to stop reading: 'Mikey, turn off that light and just go to bed. It's one o'clock in the morning.' Usually, I would.''

For all of us who find ourselves in thrall to books (and finally there's no explanation for why this, like pigeon droppings, hits one of us and not the other), there comes the moment that when we realize we've somehow become different, that we've taken a step sideways from the common culture flowing about us and wound up on a shaky raft. Bleak Ohio or destitute Arkansas, it makes little difference. And so we return to those very books that have set us apart to console us, to reassure us of the validity of our apartness, to reconnect and help us find our way back.

No one charts the passage better than Mike Dirda. He knows the shallows, sandbars, currents, landings. I find it impossible to read him without having my faith in literature restored - ''faith'' being a word I don't use lightly. For a long time now, as have many others, I've trusted him as guide. George Meredith? You bet - I'll go right out and read him. Gene Wolfe? Picked up a handful of paperbacks today.Stendahl Stendhal? Okay, I'll give him another try.

''Some readers may wonder if I discovered any unexpected truths or insights about life in working on 'An Open Book,''' Dirda writes. ''Perhaps only, as Chekhov once observed, that it takes a god to distinguish between our successes and our failures.''

Quiet successes litter Dirda's career like bodies onstage at the end of a Shakespeare play. ''An Open Book'' is the latest. This man is a rare treasure.

Paul Theroux said that he inhabits each sentence he writes. Mike Dirda inhabits each book he reads. Inhabits it - and makes a space alongside for us to join him.

A trade paperback of James Sallis's final Lew Griffin novel, ''Ghost of a Flea,'' is due shortly, as is a chapbook of translations from French, Spanish, and Russian poetry, ''My Tongue in Other Cheeks.''

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