Archived Reading Room

Wading into a few of my favorite ‘dipper’ books

bookSome books — novels, certain histories and biographies — deserve full immersion. We dive into them, plummet into their depths, swim through them from first page to last, and return to shore refreshed and satisfied by our explorations.


Then there are the “dipper” books. These are the books — poetry, collections of essays, letters, and stories — into which we dip from time to time. We wade into them, read a few pages at random, find enjoyment or words for contemplation, put them aside, and come back to the shore dry above the knees.

Here are some dipping books I have perused in the last three weeks. These are all fine reads, but I cheerfully confess not only that I have not read them in their entirety, but that they could sit on my shelves for 10 years and I would still never read them cover to cover. They bring their pleasures and rewards in small packages.

First up is The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1923-1925 (ISBN 978-0-521-89734-1). Published by Cambridge University Press, this second volume in the series of Hemingway letters covers the Paris years in which Hemingway begins to come into his own as an artist. Here is a wonderful self-portrait of a young man becoming more and more aware of his powers as a writer. In these years he wrote hundreds of letters, correspondence that reveals a growing pride, a rough sense of humor, and a prickly self-consciousness easily wounded by slights both real and imagined. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway also paints a psychological portrait of Hemingway’s relationship with his mother. His letters to her, though affectionate in a way, show none of the ease or humor with which he wrote to friends. We can feel his distance and discomfort with his mother, whom he later claimed to loathe, in every letter to her in this collection.

Nick Hornby’s Ten Years In The Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books (ISBN 978-1-938073-73-1, $26) is a collection of essays on reading and books from his column “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” for the magazine Believer. Each month, at the top of his essay, Hornby lists “Books Bought” and “Books Read,” and then discusses what he’s read. These are not really book reviews in the formal sense, but are instead reflections on books, on life, and particularly on Hornby’s own life. He writes like a man on fire, and nearly every page brought a smile or laughter. Writing this review, I just opened the book at random and here reproduce the first sentence of a paragraph on page 124 regarding the Bob Dylan autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One: “I’m not a Dylanologist — to me he’s your common-or-garden great artist, prone to the same peaks and troughs as anyone else and with nothing of interest in his trash can. Even so, when I heard about a forthcoming Dylan autobiography, I still found it hard to imagine what it would look like. Would it have a corny title — My Back Pages, say or The Times, They have A-Changed?”

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Unlike the Hemingway book, which I will purchase used or in paperback, Ten Years In A Tub is a keeper. I look forward to many moments of wading pleasure.

Recently I published a collection of my own essays under the title Learning As I Go. (Another dipper book, by the way). Several readers have expressed puzzlement at the starchy tone and derisive humor of this book. “That doesn’t seem like you,” they say. “Where did it come from?” I generally mumble a reply that it is a part of me, but their questions did make me wonder what writers had pointed me in that direction. There were the letters of Evelyn Waugh, the deadpan British essays of Alice Thomas Ellis, the mordent misanthropic wit of that national treasure, Florence King, the strange John Town in George Garrett’s Poison Pen.

But perhaps the greatest influence was Judith Martin, more popularly known as “Miss Manners.” 

At my elbow, and at the bottom of my stack of dippers, is her latest book, Miss Manners Minds Your Business (ISBN 978-0-393-08136-7, $26.95). Miss Manners directs this particular volume at etiquette in the workplace. It has little to do with my own work situation, but I have never read Miss Manners for her points on correct behavior, though I certainly agree with her. No — I read Miss Manners for her style, grace, and wicked — oh, so deliciously wicked — sense of humor. Over the years, I have owned several of her books. Indeed, Miss Manners Rescues Civilization sits always within easy reach on my desk. Whenever I have the urge toward the acerbic, whenever I need seek out the pasquinading wit who so rarely appears in public, I have only to read a few pages of Miss Manners and out the sneering little devil comes.

Finally, the excellent Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms makes for marvelous dipping. Unlike the ordinary thesaurus, this volume compares words having the same meaning while at the same time exploring the nuances of that meaning. Under “Gibberish,” for example, we get a minor dissertation on the differences in these words, which we may regard as having the same meaning but which actually have subtle differences: gibberish (suggests language), mummery (suggests actions uninterrupted by words), hocus-pocus (suggests jugglery), abracadabra (suggests magic). 

Great words all. And who knew there was the wonderful word “jugglery”? 

Dippers all. And all wonderful.

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