Woolf on Reading

A million thanks to Danielle (A Work in Progress) for bringing Virgina Woolf’s essay, How Should One Read a Book?, to my attention. It is a welcome antidote to the pedantic and mechanistic How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren. Although her approach is generally the same, she expresses it much more beautifully and from the perspective of a fellow reader, rather than an omniscient teacher who may not be questioned.

Like Adler and Van Doren (and Susan Wise Bauer), she describes two phases of reading, the first devoted to understanding, the second to criticism. Unlike these other authors, Woolf feels it is a mistake to begin by categorizing books and forming expectations based on even the most general classification.

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.

Step by step procedures for dissecting different types of book would obviously be anathema to this approach. Woolf continues:

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 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. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases. Details now fit themselves into their places. We see the shape from start to finish; it is a barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral. Now then we can compare book with book as we compare building with building. But this act of comparison means that our attitude has changed; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe. Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy; are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease? Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind.

It’s true that I generally have to ‘let the dust settle’ after reading a book before I can form any impression of it as a whole, and in fact those impressions do seem to materialize fully formed in my mind as if by magic. But mere impressions are not enough:

It would be foolish, then, 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.

All is not lost, however, for we have some guides:

…in order to steady ourselves in this difficult attempt, it may be well to turn to the very rare writers who are able to enlighten us upon literature as an art. Coleridge and Dryden and Johnson, in their considered criticism, the poets and novelists themselves in their considered sayings, are often surprisingly revelant; they light up and solidify the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds.

Woolf seems to understand the desire (which is my desire) to penetrate the beautiful mysteries of the literary arts. She gives her advice so charmingly that I am inclined to follow it and seek out other authors who have written on “literature as an art.” Would it be too much to ask for an anthology of such writings? [She googles madly…] Ah. Perhapsnot.


2 comments on “Woolf on Reading

  1. Danielle says:

    Wasn't this a wonderful essay? She says everything so beautifully I wanted to quote the whole essay!

  2. Sylvia says:

    I know. I haven't read any Woolf, so now I wonder what I've been missing!

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