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Born to read


Coming of Age in the Heartland

By Michael Dirda

Norton, $24.95, 320 pp

Reviewed by KIT REED

Born readers aren't like other people, but in their own way, they're all alike. As kids, where they settle in to read is important: the corner where they're least likely to be noticed, that wicker chair on an upstairs porch where nobody will think to look. Mothers tire of the dialogue macroburned into every kid reader's hard drive: "Just as soon as I finish this chapter." "Just as soon as I finish this page."

From early childhood, born readers are adventurers and daydreamers. And they're usually nerds. In school, it's hard to get their attention. A born reader is deep in whatever good stuff waits in the last chapter of the grade school reader while classmates struggle to sound out one and two-syllable words on page 10.

As kids, do we all wear glasses? Are we all overweight? Do we have to be bad at sports? Oh, there is suffering. There is shunning by athletic classmates and there are parental complaints about wasting time and ruining our eyes. And there are the books, there are comics, magazines, the funnies, labels on cereal boxes and more books and for us what happens in books is usually bigger than life and far more exciting. Private. Safe.

Senior editor at Washington Post Book World, Michael Dirda is a born reader. Where the senior Dirda complained about Mike's bookishness until it resulted in product _ prizes won! _ his grown son has made a career of reading and writing about books. Dirda's work earned him the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1993.

And the Pulitzer Prize-winner's childhood? Maybe bookworms really are all alike. In this gentle, engaging, wonderfully intelligent memoir about growing up with and through and because of the hundreds of books he borrowed and bought second-hand, Dirda writes: "Having grown into a pudgy, introspective eight-year-old misfit, I soon found myself further alienated from my fellows by pathetic ineptitude at all contact sports. If I played a game of touch football without my glasses, I couldn't see well enough to catch a pass." No matter. He could always read. Imagination is never fat or nearsighted or limited.

Memoirists often use their work to settle scores, but Dirda does none of this. He writes with understanding and compassion about his irascible, embittered father, who had dropped out of high school in Lorain, Ohio, to work in the steel mills to support his family. Simmering with resentment, he walked out of his son's Oberlin commencement because Jesse Jackson was speaking, even though the younger Dirda was the first in his family to go to college.

"People sometimes ask me: "Did you have a happy childhood?' My instinctive reply is no. For I usually remember my father's anger and scorn, my painful awareness of being fat, nearsighted and inept at games, my several gut-wrenching fears (imagined monsters, public speaking), my sense of intellectual and social inferiority as a college freshman, my constant escape into the pleasures of text . . . yet I cannot now look back at my early years with anything but gratitude and, as I hope these pages show, deep affection."

There are wonderful details here, a glimpse into childhood and the process of growing up and before and during and beyond all that there are the books, the books.

A celebrated writer who shall remain nameless once threw a sanctimonious fit. She told students to stick to recognized classics because you always wrote what you read. Fat lot she knows. Dirda raced through his share of comic books with emphasis on the Green Hornet; kids' series _ Tom Swift and The Hardy Boys _ genre fiction, whatever came to hand, even as he was soberly compiling and plowing through lists of Great Books. The books on his high school list were by the likes of Homer and Plato and include Thoreau, Tolstoy, de Maupassant and Poe. And the reading? It was his life.

Half a lifetime later, Dirda is still reading and where some of us born readers worry about when and where we'll have time to read as much as we want, he's surpassed us, and the reading goes on. Still, he ends on a sweetly rueful note.

"My father used to warn me: "A writer writes. A reader reads. . . . Get your nose out of that book and go do something useful.' "

And the reader who is now an author concludes, "Yes, Dad. You may not, as you used to say, always be right, but you're never wrong." The last words in this Open Book are: "Perhaps even now it's not altogether too late."

Kit Reed is a novelist whose next book, Thinner Than Thou, will be out in June.