Off the Cuff: Michael Dirda, OC ’70, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic

Michael Dirda, OC ’70, a Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic.

Courtesy of Larry Moore

Michael Dirda, OC ’70, a Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic.

Madeline Stocker, News Editor

Michael Dirda OC ’70 is a Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic for The Washington Post, and a published author. Dirda will give two public talks this coming Thursday: one at the Oberlin Public Library at 4 p.m. and another in the Ken- dal at Oberlin Haiser Auditorium at 7 p.m. He sat down with the Review to discuss his tumul- tuous academic career, feelings of inadequacy and how life in Lorain inspired him to become a literary journalist.

Can you tell me about growing up in Lorain, and about your time at Oberlin?

I grew up in Lorain. I came from a working-class family; no one in my family had ever been to college. I graduated from high school, and in those days, very few of the graduates did anything beyond high school. When I was a senior, I was a real cut-up of a high school student. I got a D in English the first grading period when I was a senior. I was supposed to be applying to college. But I remember I wrote Oberlin a letter saying that if they let me in and gave me some money and a job and a loan, I’d work really hard and they’d be proud of me one day, and they bought it.

I had to do a little more extra stuff. I had very uneven grades, but I got through. I talk about all of that in An Open Book; the first two-thirds are about growing up in Lorain and about how books shaped my life and eventually took me out of the town. The last part is about coming to Oberlin in the ’60s and the culture shock I went through and how much I came to love the place. Because I grew up there, I do come back to northern Ohio pretty often to see my family, and occasionally I swing by and look over the old books [in Ben Franklin’s]. My book is really a love letter to Oberlin — it changed my life.

I was going to drop out as a freshman; the best grade I could get in English when I was actually trying my hardest was a D+. I was doing miserably in other classes, and I sort of just turned myself around and felt that this was my one chance and that I had to make a go of it. So I turned around and became a grind, what we called in those days, which I guess is what you would call a nerd or a geek. So I gave up all extracurricular activities and just studied all the time, went to the Conservatory and listened to a lot of classical music. I had a girlfriend and I went to school — that was all I did.

How did you transition into life after Oberlin and later become a literary critic for The Washington Post?

Once I graduated from Oberlin, there was nothing I wanted to do but get back there and teach. I went to France for a year on a Fulbright [scholarship], and then I went to graduate school in comparative literature at Cornell [University], and came to Washington because my wife was working there as a paper conservator at the Library of Congress. I stayed in D.C. and became a technical writer for a while for a computer company and began to write critiques on the side. The [Washington] Post liked my views, and asked if I’d be interested in a job. I could see that computers were going nowhere and that newspapers were reliable … so I started there, long ago in 1978.

You mentioned that books shaped your life and your future adulthood. How did that come to be?

It’s partly a mystery why anything becomes a passion for any of us. Why do we fall in love with that woman or that man rather than another? It’s sometimes hard to say. My family didn’t read books, but my mother taught me to read when I was very young, before I started kindergarten. She would look at these picture books with me, and I eventually figured out how to read. I wasn’t a particularly good reader in elementary school, and I probably would’ve been diagnosed with some psychological quirk; I didn’t pay much attention to my teachers. I read Hardy Boys and Tarzan, and eventually started Sherlock Holmes. From there I went on to Agatha Christie and Crime and Punishment, which I loved. And then I really started reading grown-up books.

But I’ve always continued to love science fiction. My closest friends are in [that industry], and some have gone on to become quite famous. Neil Gaiman or George R.R. Martin — we go way back. Eventually I joined the Baker Street Regulars, which is this Sherlock Holmes group that started in the 1930s, and it plays this game that Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson actually lived, and pretends that the books are records of their lives. And I write pretty often; I’m coming out with [my next book] soon … and I also do my weekly review for The Washington Post, and I write pretty often for the New York Review of Books and half a dozen other places. And there I write about more mainstream things, but not always. I try and vary it.

You said that Oberlin was a culture shock for you. Why was that?

I grew up in this blue-collar world. … I had never heard classical music, I had never seen a painting. It was a very insular environment — books were my only knowledge of the greater world. My education was very spotty; my parents didn’t really care much about my schooling. So I got to Oberlin, and my freshman roommate was the son of an Oklahoma oil millionaire, and one of my best friends could whistle Mozart operas from beginning to end; the other was the chess champion of Ohio. I felt incredibly inferior. … I signed up for 17th-century metaphysical poetry, and we had a legendary professor. He was incredibly daunting to me, and we had to write these weekly short papers, these poems, and I got a B+. And all this time I was in this French class where my teacher was telling me that a C+ was the worst grade you could get, because it meant you were average, and I kept getting C+’s. On top of all this I fell in love with a girl from the South, I thought she was Scarlett O’Hara, and that was fairly tempestuous. It was a combination of struggling with all of my classes, having a high-maintenance girlfriend, having these incredibly gifted friends that made me feel inferior.

The upshot to this was that I really felt that I should go back to Lorain, and my father, who never had a kind word for me or anyone else, came to me and said something like, “A lot of kids here have had advantages you haven’t had. But, if you work harder than everybody else, you’ll be fine.” I had worked all sorts of jobs ever since I was little — I knew how to work. I applied that energy to Oberlin. I wanted to feel at home in the world, wanted to feel cosmopolitan. I didn’t want to ever feel afraid of the people that I was around. I wanted to be able to move from the working-class ranks I knew to the highest society.