What Is a Book?

David Kirby

An impassioned engagement with the practice and pleasures of literature


"After What Is a Book?, the study of a work of literature seems to me refreshed again, relevant, and full of pleasure; and the practice of writing about literature seems again public, useful, and productive. David Kirby's scholarship is impeccable, and his writing is smart, distinctively witty, and precise. I want to cheer."
—David Baker, poetry editor of the Kenyon Review and Thomas B. Fordham Chair of Creative Writing, Denison University

"Those of us who have been saving old magazines and newspapers with David Kirby’s essays and reviews can start clearing out the attic. Kirby’s unique combination of learning, wisdom, and the whole range of humor from the sly smile to the belly laugh is even more gratifying and pleasurable when his articles are collected in a single volume than when encountered one by one. Through his readings of two centuries of American fiction, poetry, and criticism, Kirby answers his own question, ‘What is a book?,’ with a nuanced, comic, and profound account of what it means to be human."
—Edward Mendelson, author of Early Auden and Later Auden

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In What Is a Book? David Kirby addresses the making and consuming of literature by redefining the four components of the act of reading: writer, reader, critic, and book. He discusses his students, his work, and his practice as a teacher, writer, critic, and reader, and positions his theories and opinions as products of "real" life as much as academic exercise. Among the ideas animating the book are Kirby's beliefs that "devotion is more important than dissection" and "practice is more important than theory."

Covering an impressive range of writers—from Emerson, Poe, and Melville to James Dickey, Charles Wright, Richard Howard, Susan Montez, and others—Kirby considers the evolution of critical theory from the nineteenth century to the late twentieth and explores the role of criticism in contemporary culture. Drawing from his experience writing poetry and reading to children at a local housing project, he answers two of his four central questions: "What is a reader?" and "What is a writer?" In the largest section of the book, "What Is a Critic?," Kirby demonstrates his passionate engagement with the function of the critic in literary culture and offers both overviews and close examinations of literary theory, book reviewing, and the historical background of criticism from its earliest beginnings. In the final section of the book, he addresses the question "What is a book?" with an examination of the reading preferences of older readers. Kirby's analysis of those responses, along with his own notions of the literary canon, is an insightful excursion into how books are valued.

Deeply learned and wonderfully entertaining, What Is a Book? is a lucid look at the whole of literary culture. Kirby makes us think about the books we love and why we love them.

Page count: 240 pp.
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5


List price: $24.95

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David Kirby is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. He is the author of many books of poetry and criticism, including The Ha-Ha, My Twentieth Century, and What Is a Book? (Georgia). His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Southern Review, Paris Review, and other publications.