Virginia Woolf Offers Gentle Advice on “How One Should Read a Book”

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I am priv­i­leged to have grown up in a house filled with books. I don’t remem­ber learn­ing to read; I sim­ply recall books—those that felt beneath me, those that seemed for­ev­er beyond com­pre­hen­sion. No one taught me how to read—by which I mean no one told me what to attend to in books, what to ignore; what to love, what to scorn. The shelves in my home, school, and local library were a wilder­ness, and I was left to carve my own paths through their thick­ets.

That all changed when I got to col­lege, then grad­u­ate school, where I found var­i­ous crit­i­cal move­ments, lit­er­ary the­o­ries, and philo­soph­i­cal schools, and was com­pelled to choose between their meth­ods, pol­i­tics, and pro­hi­bi­tions. Read­ing became a stren­u­ous activ­i­ty, a heavy intel­lec­tu­al exer­cise in which I felt those crit­ics and the­o­rists always look­ing over my shoul­der. Those who have done inten­sive study in the human­i­ties may sym­pa­thize: After­ward, I had to relearn how to read with­out an agen­da.

Such is the kind of unfet­tered read­ing Vir­ginia Woolf rec­om­mends in an essay titled “How Should One Read a Book?”, pub­lished in a series called The Com­mon Read­er—a title, in fact, of two col­lec­tions, the first pub­lished in 1925, the sec­ond in 1932. Woolf wrote these essays for lay read­ers, not schol­ars, and many were pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished in venues like The Nation, Vogue, and The Yale Review. In them, Woolf’s infor­mal inves­ti­ga­tions of writ­ers like Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Christi­na Ros­set­ti, and Thomas Hardy—writes a 1925 New York Times review—do not “put the author in the atti­tude of a defend­er or an expos­i­tor of cer­tain trends in lit­er­a­ture.”

How Should One Read a Book?” appears at the end of the sec­ond series of The Com­mon Read­er. The essay “cau­tions,” writes Maria Popo­va, “against bring­ing bag­gage and pre-con­ceived notions to your read­ing” and abjures a for­mal, crit­i­cal approach:

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.

Though her­self a more than able schol­ar and crit­ic, Woolf does not rec­om­mend that her read­ers become so. “The only advice,” she writes, “that one per­son can give anoth­er about read­ing is to take no advice, to fol­low your instincts, to use your own rea­son, to come to your own con­clu­sions.” That said, how­ev­er, she feels “at lib­er­ty to put for­ward a few ideas and sug­ges­tions” that we are free to take or leave. She offers her guide­lines to aid enjoy­ment, not sti­fle it, and to help us sort and sift the “mul­ti­tudi­nous chaos” we encounter when con­front­ed with gen­res, peri­ods, and styles of every type.

“Where,” Woolf asks, “are we to begin?” Below, in brief, find a few of her “ideas and sug­ges­tions,” offered with all of the care­ful caveats above:

  • “Since books have classes—fiction, biog­ra­phy, poetry—we should sep­a­rate them and take from each what it is right that each should give us.”

Most com­mon­ly we come to books with blurred and divid­ed minds, ask­ing of fic­tion that it shall be true, of poet­ry that it shall be false, of biog­ra­phy that it shall be flat­ter­ing, of his­to­ry that it shall enforce our own prej­u­dices. If we could ban­ish all such pre­con­cep­tions when we read, that would be an admirable begin­ning. 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.

  • “Per­haps the quick­est way to under­stand the ele­ments of what a nov­el­ist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own exper­i­ment with the dan­gers and dif­fi­cul­ties of words.”

Recall, then, some event that has left a dis­tinct impres­sion on you — how at the cor­ner of the street, per­haps, you passed two peo­ple talk­ing. A tree shook; an elec­tric light danced; the tone of the talk was com­ic, but also trag­ic; a whole vision, an entire con­cep­tion, seemed con­tained in that moment…. When you attempt to recon­struct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thou­sand con­flict­ing impres­sions…. Then turn from your blurred and lit­tered pages to the open­ing pages of some great nov­el­ist — Defoe, Jane Austen, Hardy. Now you will be bet­ter able to appre­ci­ate their mas­tery.

  • “We can read [biogra­phies and mem­oirs] 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.”

The greater part of any library is noth­ing but the record of… fleet­ing moments in the lives of men, women, and don­keys. Every lit­er­a­ture, as it grows old, has its rub­bish-heap, its record of van­ished moments and for­got­ten lives told in fal­ter­ing and fee­ble accents that have per­ished. But if you give your­self up to the delight of rub­bish-read­ing you will be sur­prised, indeed you will be over­come, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to moul­der. It may be one let­ter — but what a vision it gives! It may be a few sen­tences — but what vis­tas they sug­gest!

Read the entire­ty of Woolf’s essay here to learn her nuanced view of read­ing. She con­cludes her essay with anoth­er gen­tle swipe at lit­er­ary crit­i­cism and rec­om­mends humil­i­ty in the com­pa­ny of lit­er­a­ture:

If to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qual­i­ties of imag­i­na­tion, insight, and judg­ment, you may per­haps con­clude that lit­er­a­ture is a very com­plex art and that it is unlike­ly that we shall be able, even after a life­time of read­ing, to make any valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to its crit­i­cism. We must remain read­ers.

Clear­ly Woolf did not think of read­ing as a pas­sive activ­i­ty, but rather one in which we engage our own imag­i­na­tions and lit­er­ary abil­i­ties, such as they are. But if we are not to crit­i­cize, not draw firm con­clu­sions, morals, life lessons, or philoso­phies from the books we read, of what use is read­ing to us?

Woolf answers the ques­tion with some ques­tions of her own: “Are there not some pur­suits that we prac­tice because they are good in them­selves, and some plea­sures that are final? And is not this among them?”

via Brain­Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take Vladimir Nabokov’s Quiz to See If You’re a Good Reader–The Same One He Gave to His Stu­dents

Vir­ginia Woolf Writes About Joyce’s Ulysses, “Nev­er Did Any Book So Bore Me,” and Quits at Page 200

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Vir­ginia Woolf

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

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