In January, the month of Virginia Woolf's birth, I like to read something by, or about, her. This year I decided to read one of her essays, since I've joined the Essay Reading Challenge. I perused both The Common Reader, and The Second Common Reader and decided upon the last essay in the latter book. Its title was irresistible - How Should One Read A Book? She begins by stressing the importance of the 'note of interrogation at the end of my title.'
Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you. The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.She recommends that we begin a book with an open mind.
Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticise at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read.She discusses the varieties of reading, what she calls, 'classes,' specifically fiction, biography, and poetry. She notes that when we read fiction:
It is not merely that we are in the presence of a different person - Defoe, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy - but that we are living in a different world.Biographies offer to 'satisfy the curiosity' we feel as we walk down a street at night and
we linger in front of a house where the lights are lit and the blinds not yet drawn, and each floor of the house shows us a different section of human life...And about poetry, Virginia Woolf says,
The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then - how sudden and complete our immersion!
These are but a few examples of the wisdom expressed in the eleven pages of this essay. I can't imagine a reader who will not come away with a sense of companionship with the author, who conveys so much of what we feel inside yet possibly have never expressed to another soul, or even to ourselves. She ends with the idea of a Day of Judgment when
great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards ... the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."
Please do read this essay. It may change your life in a small, or not-so-small way. It is available online here.
Virginia Woolf at Monks House in 1931, a year before The Second Common Reader was published. Today is the 130th anniversary of her birth.
This is my first essay read for the Essay Reading Challenge - 2012.