Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Today's essay by Virginia Woolf

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.'
Text Color
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.


  1. Nan- Have you read "Street Haunting", Woolf's essay on going out and about of a London evening ostensibly to buy a pencil. One of my favorites! Her essays are brilliant.

  2. I haven't Betsy. I'll look into it. Thanks for the recommendation. I so love her.

  3. I haven't read it, but I will - I have a copy of A Room of One's Own, and I always enjoy that.

  4. Crisscross, it is just the best essay!

  5. Have you read The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett, which is also about the joy of reading, and how to read?

  6. CrissCross, it's waiting on my shelf!

  7. I am sure you will enjoy it. He writes so well, and it is very gentle, and I like the way he shows how reading one thing leads to another... and another... and another... checking out more from the same author, similar authors,more information etc...

  8. So glad you honored VW's birthday, she is one of my very favorites and each time I go to London I make a trek to Bloomsbury. Her essays are masterpieces.

  9. CrissCross, I also own his The Complete Talking Heads. I bought it after seeing the tv versions. I thought they were such wonderful portraits.

    I try to most years, Alex. Sometimes a book, sometimes a quote. I envy you being able to head to B. so easily.

  10. Have just saved the essay to my hard-drive and will read when I have a moment. I put a book of her essays on my Kindle but have yet to get to them, of course this essay may be in that book, I'm not sure.

  11. I will look forward to reading this Nan. Thanks.

  12. I'm not a huge fan of Woolf's novels but you have persuaded me to try her again with your wonderful post and extracts!

  13. Wonderful review - and thanks for linking to the essay online! I will definitely be reading it in the next day or two. :) I linked this review to the main challenge page.

  14. Thanks for including all the wonderful excerpts! Now I really want to read these essays, and I'm adding it to my wish list.

  15. Cath, it is a book-lovers dream essay! And of course with VW writing it, well, it is perfect, that's all.

    Lisa, it's a gem!

    Nicola, this is an essay for readers, that's for sure.

    Carrie, it's a great essay.

    Jenclair, she's such a wonderful writer.

  16. who conveys so much of what we feel inside yet possibly have never expressed to another soul, or even to ourselves

    This is one of the best things about good writing - a sense of startled recognition as the author puts words to what's inside us. Thanks for suggesting this essay.

  17. Even reading those snippets from the essay is so rewarding. I agree about the feeling of trying to become the author in the case of fiction. I do this without intending to, and, often, find myself a bit confused about why I am feeling a certain way. No matter what the subject matter there are certain authors I avoid and others I welcome, their voice carries so much and I now choose which one I want in my head. Virginia is someone I love to have in me, beside me.

  18. Wow! Carole, that was so beautifully expressed. There are authors (and tv shows) I have quit because I don't want their feelings, words, actions in my head. I love your last sentence.

  19. 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...

    Oh, this is what I love! No wonder I love to read memoirs & biographies.

    Thanks for the link to the essay.


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