Why Should We Read Virginia Woolf? A TED-Ed Animation Makes the Case

Virginia Woolf dissuaded readers from playing the critic in her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” But in addition to her novels, she is best known for her literary criticism and became a foundational figure in feminist literary theory for her imaginative polemic “A Room of One’s Own,” an essay that takes traditional criticism to task for its presumptions of male literary superiority.

Women writers like herself, she argues, had always been a privileged few with the means and the freedom to pursue writing in ways most women couldn’t. These conditions were so rare for women throughout literary history that innumerable artists may have gone unnoticed and unheralded for their lack of opportunity. Her observation would have put her readers in mind of Thomas Gray’s revered “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” with its famous line about a pauper's grave: “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest.”

Woolf alludes to the poem, writing of “some mute and inglorious Jane Austen,” and makes a case that would-have-been women writers were exceptionally marginalized by gender—by its intersections with power and privilege and their lack. She famously constructed a scenario—brought into pop culture by The Smiths and Bananarama singer Siobhan Fahey—involving Shakespeare’s fictional sister Judith, whose talent and ambition are squashed for the sake of her brother’s education. It is hardly a far-fetched idea. We might remember Mozart’s sister Nannerl, who was also a child prodigy, whose career ended with her childhood, and who disappeared in her brother’s shadow.

In the TED-Ed video at the top, Woolf scholar and doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin Iseult Gillespie describes the import of Woolf’s thought experiment. Shakespeare’s sister stands in for every woman who is pushed into domestic labor and marriage while the men in her family pursue their goals unhindered. “Woolf demonstrates the tragedy of genius restricted,” just as Langston Hughes would do a couple decades later. Her particular genius, says Gillespie, lies in her ability to portray “the internal experience of alienation…. Her characters frequently live inner lives that are deeply at odds with their external existence.”

The video outlines Woolf’s own biography: her inclusion in the “Bloomsbury Group”—a social circle including E.M. Forster and Virginia's soon-to-be husband Leonard Woolf. And it sketches out the innovative  literary techniques of her novels. Woolf thought of herself, as Alain de Botton says in his short introduction above, as a “distinctively modernist writer at odds with a raft of the staid and complacent assumptions of 19th century English literature.” One such assumption, as she writes in “A Room of One’s Own,” includes an opinion that “the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.”

Woolf’s own modernist breakthroughs rival those of her contemporaries James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Her favorite women writers rank as highly as men in the same canon in any serious study; but this is of course beside the point. It wasn’t the truth or falsehood of claims about women’s inferiority that determined their power, but rather the social power of those who made such claims.

Domineering fathers, spotlight-stealing brothers, moralizing clergymen, the gatekeeping intellectuals of “Oxbridge”—Woolf’s portmanteau for the snobbery and chauvinism of Oxford and Cambridge dons: it was such men who determined not only whether or not a woman might pursue her writing, but whether she lived or died in penury, mute and inglorious. Woolf knew much of what she wrote, having grown up surrounded by the cream of 19th-century literary society, and having had to “steal an education from her father’s study,” as de Botton notes, while her brothers went off to Cambridge. She was nonetheless well aware of her privilege and used it not only to create new forms of writing, but to open new literary spaces for women writers to come.

Related Content:

An Animated Introduction to Virginia Woolf

The Steamy Love Letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (1925-1929)

Watch Patti Smith Read from Virginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Surviving Recording of Woolf’s Voice

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Leo Tolstoy’s Family Recipe for Mac ‘N’ Cheese

In 1874, Stepan Andreevich Bers published The Cookbook and gave it as a gift to his sister, countess Sophia Andreevna Tolstaya, the wife of the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. The book contained a collection of Tolstoy family recipes, the dishes they served to their family and friends, those fortunate souls who belonged to the aristocratic ruling class of late czarist Russia. Almost 150 years later, this cookbook has been translated and republished by Sergei Beltyukov.

Available in an inexpensive Kindle format ($3.99), Leo Tolstoy's family recipe book features dozens of recipes, everything from Tartar Sauce and Spiced Mushrooms (what's a Russian kitchen without mushrooms?), to Stuffed Dumplings and Green Beans à la Maître d'Hôtel, to Coffee Cake and Viennese Pie. The text comes with a translation, too, of Russian weights and measures used during the period. One recipe Mr. Beltyukov provided to us (which I didn't see in the book) is for the Tolstoy's good ole Mac 'N' Cheese dish. It goes something like this:

Bring water to a boil, add salt, then add macaroni and leave boiling on light fire until half tender; drain water through a colander, add butter and start putting macaroni back into the pot in layers – layer of macaroni, some grated Parmesan and some vegetable sauce, macaroni again and so on until you run out of macaroni. Put the pot on the edge of the stove, cover with a lid and let it rest in light fire until the macaroni are soft and tender. Shake the pot occasionally to prevent them from burning.

We'll leave you with bon appétit! -- an expression almost certainly heard in the homes of those French-speaking Russian aristocrats.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Note: This post first appeared on OC back in 2014.

Related Content:

Leo Tolstoy’s 17 “Rules of Life:” Wake at 5am, Help the Poor, & Only Two Brothel Visits Per Month

Rare Recording: Leo Tolstoy Reads From His Last Major Work in Four Languages, 1909

Vintage Footage of Leo Tolstoy: Video Captures the Great Novelist During His Final Days

An Archive of 3,000 Vintage Cookbooks Lets You Travel Back Through Culinary Time

MIT Teaches You How to Speak Italian & Cook Italian Food All at Once (Free Online Course)

The Futurist Cookbook (1930) Tried to Turn Italian Cuisine into Modern Art

Works by Tolstoy can be found in our collections, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices and 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free

Lin-Manuel Miranda Reads Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

It's worth taking note of this: In a newly-released audiobook, Lin-Manuel Miranda (the creator and star of Hamilton) narrates Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Above and below, listen to excerpts of an unabridged reading that lasts nearly 10 hours. And also note that Miranda is joined at points by Tony Award-winning actress, Karen Olivo.

If you're tempted to hear the full production, you can purchase the audiobook online. Or you can download it for free by signing up for Audible's 30-day free trial. As I've mentioned before, if you register for Audible's free trial program, they let you download two free audiobooks. At the end of 30 days, you can decide whether you want to become an Audible subscriber (as I have) or not. No matter what you decide, you get to keep the two free audiobooks. Miranda's reading of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao can be one of them.

For anyone who wants free readings of Diaz stories, see our post: 7 Short Stories by Junot Díaz Free Online, In Text and Audio.

NB: We have a partnership with Audible.com. So, if you give their program a try, it will help support Open Culture.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda Creates a 19-Song Playlist to Help You Get Over Writer’s Block

A Sneak Peek at Junot Díaz’s Syllabi for His MIT Writing Classes, and the Novels on His Reading List

Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda Creates a Playlist of Protest Music for Our Troubled Times

“Alexander Hamilton” Performed with American Sign Language

Hear Classic Readings of Poe’s “The Raven” by Vincent Price, James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee & More

It can seem that the writing of literature and the theory of literature occupy separate great houses, Game of Thrones-style, or even separate countries held apart by a great sea. Perhaps they war with each other, perhaps they studiously ignore each other or obliquely interact at tournaments with acronymic names like MLA and AWP. Like Thomas Pynchon’s characterization of the political right and left, scholars and writers represent opposing poles, the hothouse and the street. That rare beast, the academic poet, can seem like something of a unicorn, or dragon…

…Or like the ominous talking raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous of poems.

The divide between theory and practice is a recent development, a product of state budgeting, political brinksmanship, the relentless publishing mills of academia that force scholars to find a pigeonhole and stay there.... In days past, poets and scholar/theorists frequently occupied the same place at the same time—Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and, of course, Poe, whose perennially popular “The Raven” serves as a point-by-point illustration for his theory of composition just as thoroughly as Eliot’s great works bear out his notion of the “objective correlative.”

Poe’s object, the titular creature, is an “archetypal symbol,” writes Dana Gioia, in a poem that aims for what its author calls a “unity of effect.” In his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe the poet/theorist tells us in great detail how “The Raven” satisfies all of his other criteria for literature as well, such as achieving its intent in a single sitting, using a repeated refrain, and so on.

Should we have any doubt about how much Poe wanted us to see the poem as the deliberate outcome of a conceptual scheme, we find him three years later, in 1849, the year of his death, delivering a lecture on the “Poetic Principle,” and concluding with a reading of “The Raven.”

John Moncure Daniel of the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner remarked after attending one of these talks that “the attention of many in this city is now directed to this singular performance.” At that point, Poe, who hardly made a dime from “The Raven,” had to suffer the indignity of having all of his work go out of print during his brief, unhappy lifetime. Moncure and the Examiner thereby furnished readers “with the only correct copy ever published,” previous appearances, it seems, having contained punctuation errors.

Nonetheless, for all of Poe’s pedantry and penury, "The Raven"'s first appearances made him semi-famous. His readings were a sensation, and it's a sure bet that his audiences came to hear him read the poem, not deliver a lecture on its principles. Oh, for some proto-Edison in the room with an early recording device. What would it be like to hear the mournful, grief-stricken, alcoholic genius—master of the macabre and inventor of the detective story—intone the raven’s enigmatic “Nevermore”?

While Poe’s speaking voice has receded irretrievably into history, his poetic voice may live close to forever. So mesmerizing are his meter and diction that many great actors known especially for their voices have become possessed by “The Raven."

Likely when we think of the poem, what first comes to the mind’s ear is the voice of Vincent Price, or James Earl Jones, Christopher Lee, or Christopher Walken, all of whom have given “The Raven” its due.

And so have many other notables, such as the great Stan Lee, Poe successor Neil Gaiman, original Gomez Addams actor John Astin, and venerable Beat poet/scholar Anne Waldman (listen here). You will find those recitations here at this round-up of notable “Raven” readings, and if this somehow doesn’t satiate you, then check out Lou Reed’s take on the poem, the Grateful Dead’s musical tribute, "Raven Space," or a reading in 100 different celebrity impressions.

Finally, we would be remiss not to mention The Simpsons’ James Earl Jones-narrated parody, a worthy teaching tool for distracted young visual learners. Is it a shame that we now think of “The Raven” as a Halloween yarn fit for the Treehouse of Horror or any number of enjoyable exercises in spooky oratory—rather than the theoretical thought experiment its author seemed to intend? Does Poe rotisserie in his grave as Homer snores in a wingback chair? Probably. But as the author told us himself at length, the poem works! It still never fails to excite our morbid curiosity, enchant our gothic sensibility, and maybe send a chill or two down the spine. Maybe we never really needed Poe to explain it to us.

You can find other literary readings in our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

Related Content:

The Simpsons Present Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and Teachers Now Use It to Teach Kids the Joys of Literature

When Charles Dickens & Edgar Allan Poe Met, and Dickens’ Pet Raven Inspired Poe’s Poem “The Raven”

7 Tips from Edgar Allan Poe on How to Write Vivid Stories and Poems

Download The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe on His Birthday

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


54 Cats Riding Out Hurricane Irma in Ernest Hemingway’s Key West Home

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum provides a sanctuary to 54 polydactyl (six-toed) cats.  According to the museum, a ship captain once gave Ernest a white six-toed cat, and now some of its descendents live in the Hemingway Home and Museum located in Key West--precisely where Hurricane Irma is now making landfall.

As curator David Gonzales explains above, he and the 54 Hemingway cats have no plans to evacuate. They're going to ride out the storm and protect the novelist's historic home. We wish them all the best. The same goes to all of our friends in Florida. We'll see you when the storm passes.

You can see some of the Hemingway polydactyl cats here.

via Metafilter

Related Content:

Seven Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction

Ernest Hemingway Creates a Reading List for a Young Writer, 1934

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner: A Free Yale Course

Three Charles Bukowski Books Illustrated by Robert Crumb: Underground Comic Art Meets Outsider Literature

Think of the artists you know who, especially in the 1960s and 70s, portrayed an often sordid reality in detail, just as they saw it, garnering acclaim from enthusiasts, who perceived a high artistry in their seemingly rough-hewn work, and cries from countless detractors who objected to what they saw as the artists' lazy crudity. In the realm of poetry and prose, Charles Bukowski should come to mind sooner or later; in that of comic art, who fits the bill better than Robert Crumb? It makes only good sense that the work of both men should intersect, and they did in the 1980s when Crumb illustrated two short books by Bukowski, Bring Me Your Love and There’s No Business.

"Crumb’s signature underground comix aesthetic and Bukowski’s commentary on contemporary culture and the human condition by way of his familiar tropes — sex, alcohol, the drudgery of work — coalesce into the kind of fit that makes you wonder why it hadn’t happened sooner," writes Brain Pickings' Maria Popova.

"In 1998, a final posthumous collaboration was released under the title The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship — an illustrated selection from Buk’s previously unpublished diaries, capturing a year in his life shortly before his death in 1994." As one student of the graphic novel summarizes Bring Me Your Love, "the main character is a man whose personality resembles the main character of most Bukowski stories. He goes through life rather aimlessly, killing time by drinking and having sex. His wife is in a mental hospital."

"Crumb’s illustrations give the already gritty storylines a visual context — such as a man who looks much like Buk wrestling on the floor with his 'wife' after a dispute involving answering the phone or various barroom skirmishes depicting a Bukowski-looking character running amok," says Dangerous Minds. "He was a very difficult guy to hang out with in person, but on paper he was great," Crumb once said of Bukowski, and his illustrations also reveal that he understands Bukowski's own awareness of the difference between his page self and his real one. "Old writer puts on sweater, sits down, leers into computer screen, and writes about life," Bukowski writes, in their third and final collaboration, above a Crumb illustration of just such a scene. "How holy can we get?"

See more Crumb illustrations of Bukowski at Brain Pickings.

Related Content:

Four Charles Bukowski Poems Animated

Watch “Beer,” a Mind-Warping Animation of Charles Bukowski’s 1971 Poem Honoring His Favorite Drink

R. Crumb Shows Us How He Illustrated Genesis: A Faithful, Idiosyncratic Illustration of All 50 Chapters

Robert Crumb Illustrates Philip K. Dick’s Infamous, Hallucinatory Meeting with God (1974)

Cartoonist R. Crumb Assesses 21 Cultural Figures, from Dylan & Hitchcock, to Kafka & The Beatles

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover the Paintings, Drawings & Collages of Sylvia Plath: Now on Display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Sylvia Plath was a study in contrasts. Her popularization as a confessional poet, feminist literary icon, and tragic casualty of major depression; her middle-class Boston background and tortured marriage to poet Ted Hughes—these are the highlights of her biography, and, in many cases, all many people get to know about her. But “she was much more than that,” Dorothy Moss tells Mental Floss. As Vanessa Willoughby puts it in a stunning essay about her own encounters with Plath’s work, “this woman was not the sum of a gas oven and two sleeping children nestled in their beds.”

Moss, a curator at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery has organized an exhibit featuring many more sides of the poet's divided, yet purposeful self, including her work as a visual artist. Readers of Plath’s poetry may not be surprised to learn she first intended to become an artist. Her visual sense is so keen that fully-formed images seem to leap out of poems like “Blackberrying,” and into the reader’s hands; like the “high green meadows” she describes, her lines are “lit from within” by a deep appreciation for color, texture, and perspective.

Blackberries / Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes / Ebon in the hedges, fat / With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.

The blackberries come alive not only in their personification but through the kind of vivid language that could only come from someone with a painterly way of looking at things. Plath “drew and painted and sketched constantly as a child,” says Moss, and first enrolled at Smith College as an art major.

The exhibition, the National Portrait Gallery writes, “reveals how Plath shaped her identity visually as she came of age as a writer in the 1950s.” Unsurprisingly, her most frequent subject is herself. Her visual art, like her poetry, notes Mental Floss, “is often preoccupied with themes of self-identity.” But as in her eloquently-written letters and journals, as well as her published literary work, she is never one self, but many—and not all of them variations on the sly, yet brooding intellectual we see staring out at us from the well-known photographs.

We’ve previously featured some of Plath’s drawings and self-portraits here, but the Smithsonian exhibit offers a considerably richer selection than has been available online. The ink and gouache portrait at the top, for example, seems to draw from Marc Chagall in its materials and swirling lines and colors. It also recalls language in a diary entry from 1953:

Look at that ugly dead mask here and do not forget it. It is a chalk mask with dead dry poison behind it, like the death angel. It is what I was this fall, and what I never want to be again.

The hands thrown up in defense or surrender, the black lifeless eyes… Plath emerges from the ring of dead trees behind her like a suffering saint. Another portrait, further up also resembles a mask, calling to mind the ancient origins of the word persona. But the style has totally changed, the tumult of brushstrokes smoothed out into clean geometric lines and uniform patches of color. Three masks combine into one face, a trinity of Plaths. The poet always had a sense of herself as divided, referring to two distinct personalities as her “brown-haired” and “platinum” selves. The brown-haired young girl made several charming sketches of her family, with humorous commentary. (Her troubling father is tellingly, perhaps, absent.)

Hers was an epitome of standard-issue 50s white, middle class American childhood, the kind of supposedly idyllic upbringing which no small number of people still remember today in a glowing, nostalgic haze. In Plath's excavations of the identities that she cultivated herself and those she had pushed upon her, she gazed with radical intensity at America’s patriarchal social fictions, and the violence and entitlement that lay beneath them. The collage above from 1960 presents us with the kind of layered, cut-up, hybrid text that William Burroughs had begun experimenting with not long before. You can see more highlights from the Plath exhibit, “One Life: Sylvia Plath,” at the National Portrait Gallery. Also featured are Plath’s family photos, books, letters, her typewriter—and, in general, several more dimensions of her life than most of us know.

“One Life: Sylvia Plath” runs from June 30, 2017 through May 20, 2018.

Related Content:

The Art of Sylvia Plath: Revisit Her Sketches, Self-Portraits, Drawings & Illustrated Letters

Hear Sylvia Plath Read 15 Poems From Her Final Collection, Ariel, in 1962 Recording

Sylvia Plath’s 10 Back to School Commandments (1953)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »