“How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf

Woolf ReadI used to think that constant hand wringing over book choices was the exclusive domain of anxiety-ridden bloggers.

  • Am I reading enough classics?
  • Should I be reading something “smarter”?
  • Do I read too many dead white guys?
  • Should I read more non-fiction?
  • Do audiobooks even count?
  • Is 50 books a year enough?!

We all do it. We’re all self-conscious. We all write at least a post a year as a solemn decree to read what we want, when we want, and let the snobs be damned. Then we go back to asking the same questions again and the cycle never ends.

As it turns out, this process has been going on for at least a hundred years, as evidenced by Viriginia Woolf’s read-whatever-you-god-damn-well-please essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” (Available for free right here.)

So today, on what is Woolf’s 136th birthday, let us give Virginia the stage. Let her ease our worries, and clean our guilty slates for a year of reading whatever makes us happy in 2018.

She writes:

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 the 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. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions — there we have none.

As a reader, know that you’re “refreshing” and “exercising” your own creative powers, according the Woolf. Reading–and writing about what we read–is a valuable, creative pursuit. If not for anyone else, then for ourselves. Reading is about making choices, it’s an act of imagination.

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you …

… But also we can read such books with another aim, not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people, but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers.

But the best part of what we do is what Maria Popova calls the “incubation period,” where our impressions of a work imprint themselves on us and manifest themselves in our behaviour.

If you can take in what you’ve read this year, with even just a few books, and put that collected wisdom to use–in how you treat your family, how you approach your job, how you interact with and judge strangers–then you’re doing the work. You’re getting something out of what you’re reading. Even if all you’re doing is spreading a little bit of the joy that comes from reading a swashbuckling fantasy or an erotic thriller.

The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgement upon those multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole.

“The book will return, but differently.” I cannot express how much I love that, and how much it encapsulates the reading experience, for me. (See: I Don’t Remember What Happened in the Books I’ve Read, and I Don’t Care.)

But if Woolf stresses anything in “How Should One Read a Book?” it’s the act of reflection. We’re all guilty of breezing from one book to another. I’m certainly guilty of it (this month especially, considering that this might have been the most prolific reading month of my life). But it’s so important take the time to think about what we’ve read. Not during, but after. Consider it as a whole, with context, with hindsight. But don’t be afraid to “love” and “hate” at the same time.

It would be foolish … to pretend that the second part of reading, to judge, to compare, is as simple as the first — to open the mind wide to the fast flocking of innumerable impressions. To continue reading without the book before you, to hold one shadow-shape against another, to have read widely enough and with enough understanding to make such comparisons alive and illuminating — that is difficult; it is still more difficult to press further and to say, ‘Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails; here it succeeds; this is bad; that is good.’ To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive any one mind sufficiently endowed; impossible for the most self-confident to find more than the seeds of such powers in himself. Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics, the gowned and furred authorities of the library, to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible! We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our won identity as we read. But we know that we cannot sympathize wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, ‘I hate, I love,’ and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable. And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it. But as time goes on perhaps we can train our taste; perhaps we can make it submit to some control. When it has fed greedily and lavishly upon books of all sorts — poetry, fiction, history, biography — and has stopped reading and looked for long spaces upon the variety, the incongruity of the living world, we shall find that it is changing a little; it is not so greedy, it is more reflective.

5 thoughts on ““How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf

  1. Am I alone in reading some sarcasm in her essay? Like: “Compare the novels with these — even the latest and least of novels has a right to be judged with the best. And so with poetry — when the intoxication of rhythm has died down and the splendour of words has faded, a visionary shape will return to us and this must be compared with Lear, with Phèdre, with The Prelude; or if not with these, with whatever is the best or seems to us to be the best in its own kind. And we may be sure that the newness of new poetry and fiction is its most superficial quality and that we have only to alter slightly, not to recast, the standards by which we have judged the old.”

    I read it as a little sarcastic… or maybe poking fun at how we take certain books so much more seriously than others..

    This was wonderful indeed, and I notice that you can read all the essay from “A Common Reader” on that website!

    Like

    1. Oh it’s definitely a shot at the establishment, or the “canon.” Bold words from someone whose name would be used to hold up that same canon. I loved this essay. And yes, the whole thing is available online!

      I planned to read Mrs. Dalloway later in the year, and now I want to move it up.

      Like

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