I read and wrote about Virginia Woolf's "How Should One Read a Book?" nearly four years ago, and was thinking it was time to revisit it after enjoying her essay "The Docks of London" recently. You can read it online here (very nicely formatted and one of a group of essays published originally in A Common Reader - Second Series, all of which are now online). I've read through this essay a few times now and am trying to distill Woolf's ideas down to just a few (which I'm finding to be very difficult), but please do go and read it for yourself as she has so many really thoughtful and smart things to say about reading. She begins her essay with a question: How should one read a book?
"In the first place, I want to emphasise 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."
As strange as it sounds I sometimes forget this. I often look for some sort of guidance in my reading, and while I think there is definitely a time and place for this (particularly with more challenging works), I do need to learn to trust my own instincts. Woolf says independence is the most important quality a reader can have. There are some certainties in life, but who's to say whether King Lear is a better play than Hamlet? It's a matter of choice and no one is more right than another.
"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."
So now the problem is how to choose, or where to begin? How to bring order to the chaos of so many books and get the "deepest and widest pleasure from what we read?" This is her first big question, or idea (there were two really big ideas I took away from this essay). With every new book we pick up we carry with us a certain amount of baggage--our own experiences and ideas, but is it fair to thrust them on to a book?
"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. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite."
I am going to try and do this more often. It's so easy to form opinions right off the bat, and I know I do it, but I like the idea of being an "accomplice" with the author and keeping an open mind. Woolf suggests putting ourselves into the author's shoes and trying to write ourselves. Pick an event and try to recall it and write about it, but faced with so many impressions you'll find it's not so easy to convey the emotion. And then she turns to a few great novelists--Defoe, Austen and Hardy--to appreciate their mastery. Each has their own perspective and reality.
"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."
Faced with such a selection of books, though, the reader soon finds that very seldom will we see books by 'great artists'. "Far more often a book makes no claim to be a work of art at all." Do we refuse to read them, then , or "shall we read them, but read them in a different way, with a different aim?"
"The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such 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 delights 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."
I sort of like to think of some of these books as being comfort reads. Woolf takes great delight in writing about these books that have piqued our curiosity as to how other people live their lives. These books take us far away or throw light on places close to home even transporting us to another time. It may not have any value and may even be negligible "yet how absorbing it is now and again." At some point, though, the reader tires of the rubbish heap and moves on.
"'We have only to compare'--with those words the cat is out of the bag, and the true complexity of reading is admitted. 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 judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust 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."
This second part of the equation to read deeply is much harder than it sounds. Once again she notes how difficult it is to "sink our identity" when reading. Inevitably it comes down to 'I love' or 'I hate' and we can't silence this inner voice easily. A good reader needs to have imagination, insight and learning--not necessarily an easy task. Ultimately it is being widely read that brings these two processes together.
"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 on 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. It will begin to bring us not merely judgments on particular books, but it will tell us there that is a quality common to certain books."
I like how she gives power to the reader to influence the writer. We don't have to be scholars or critics to read and appreciate and understand good books just a desire and love for reading.
"If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of the people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might not this improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching."