Highlights of a Life
Lorain native Michael Dirda was born in Ohio’s “International City” on Nov. 6, 1948, the only child of Michael and Christine Dirda. His father was a steelworker at National Tube, his mother a homemaker. The family lived in a working-class, post-war, baby-boom neighborhood on West 29th Street.
As Ohio’s 10th largest city and a burgeoning industrial hub, Lorain was a magnet for people who wanted jobs in the 1950s and 1960s. It was in this community of cultural diversity that Dirda could claim before the age of 12 to realize that “not everyone in the world was Catholic.”
Like other children in his neighborhood, Dirda attended Lorain Public Schools. Up through the fourth grade, Dirda was thought to be mildly retarded and perhaps partially deaf. His report cards were studded with “unsatisfactory” grades and checkmarks noting areas for improvement. Teachers labeled him as a dreamy near-sighted child who ignored his lessons and had no interest in school.
Dirda eventually climbed out of his school stupor, however, by attempting to outscore the smartest student in his fifth-grade class. By applying himself to his studies, Dirda rose from class dunce to whiz-kid. Dirda also wanted to earn the money his father promised him for good grades: one dollar for every A. The catch was that his father would also subtract 50 cents for every B and take away one dollar for every C. Sometimes, Dirda owed his father money at report card time.
Through his self-determined studies, Dirda got hooked on reading. He began reading so much that whenever his father saw him with a book, he would kick it out of Dirda’s hand and say, “Go outside and play or go down to the basement and build something.” Whether it was a shrewd strategy to get him to read or a real sentiment expressed, the result was that Dirda began to read up to three books a day on the sly, including in bed and on the way to school.
In spite of his voracious reading, in ninth grade English at Admiral King High School, Dirda received Fs on his compositions. He would ignore the assigned theme and write about whatever he pleased. As well, his half-dozen book reports included Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.” These uncommon titles for high school book reports stunned his teachers.
In addition to his ambitious reading, Dirda was also eager to get on in the world. Given the many opportunities for work in Lorain, Dirda earned his first wages as a bricklayer’s helper, steel mill laborer, Fuller Brush salesman, window and siding installer, bar janitor, and farm hand. Although he had many opportunities to begin a traditional career, as far back as the seventh grade, Dirda’s teachers had been urging him to go to college. One suggested “a good liberal arts school.”
While a senior at Admiral King High School in 1966, Dirda chose Oberlin College, which was only 13 miles from his Lorain home. He was accepted under an early admissions policy and received a scholarship, a loan and a job. He also made his parents vow not to visit him on campus.
Dirda discovered fierce academic competition at Oberlin. Even with all his bookish smarts, he found himself surrounded by surpassingly genius students and faculty. In his first two years, he received no “A” grades. His father’s advice: “You have two arms and two legs and a head just like theirs. If they can do it, you can do it.” So, again, Dirda applied himself by studying all he could and auditing upper-level classes.
It paid off. In 1970, he graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor’s in English and was chosen to be a Fulbright Scholar. In 1971, Dirda left Ohio and the United States to teach English at Marseilles, France, for one year.
Upon his return, Dirda taught world literature at American University and George Mason University and worked as a freelance technical writer for Scientific Time Sharing Corp. Throughout the 1970s, he contributed essays, profiles and reviews to a variety of publications, including Smithsonian Magazine, Civilization, Encarta, Connoisseur, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Collier’s Encyclopedia Yearbook, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction. In 1978, he became a writer and senior editor for The Washington Post Book World.
His reviews and essays, which still appear weekly in Book World, address a broad range of interests: classics in translation, intellectual history, children’s picture books, fantasy and crime fiction, biographies, American and European literature, poetry, and innovative writing of all kinds.
The 1990s have magnified Dirda’s skill, both as a critic and as a writer. In 1991, he wrote and published a short paperback, distributed by the Book of the Month Club, called Caring for Your Books. The popular pamphlet was distributed internationally by the Book of the Month Club. Its popularity led to the publication of A Celebration of Writing in 1993, the same year Dirda won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.
In 1995 Dirda received a Washington Post/Duke University Fellowship, and in 1997 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Washington College in Chesterfield, Maryland. In 1999 he was a visiting master artist in literary journalism at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. During the fall term of 1999 he was the Distinguished Visiting Honors Lecturer at the University of Central Florida.
So far, the 21st century also looks promising for Dirda’s writing. In 2002, he published Looking for a Good Time: Reading, Libraries and the World of Books; in 2003 he published Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainment, a collection of some of his essays and reviews, and An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland, his memoirs of life in Lorain; and in 2004, Bound to Please, a book about books that “intentionally resembles a cocktail party more than a work of criticism: it’s meant to be entertaining, sometimes provocative, above all a way to catch up with old friends and make new ones.”
In his monthly Post column, “Readings” Dirda touches light-heartedly on all kinds of bookish matters: collecting modern firsts, rediscovering neglected novels, the pleasures of ghost stories, the teaching of writing and other topics of a semi-autobiographical nature. His weekly online chat, “Dirda on Books,” covers similar subjects.
He frequently conducts public “conversations” with visiting writers for the Smithsonian Institution, most recently with Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, crime novelist Donald E. Westlake, and Gore Vidal. He has also contributed biographical-critical essays to scholarly volumes on detective fiction and science fiction and fantasy.
Dirda lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife, art conservator Marian Peck Dirda, and children Christopher, Michael, and Nate, in a house with too many books.
“I’m an enthusiast for books,” Dirda noted upon receiving his Pulitzer Prize. “I try to make people excited about books, to recreate on the page the pleasure I feel about books.”