Virginia Woolf’s 1926 reading advice remains witty & useful.
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 the opening sentences of her famous essay on reading show, Virginia Woolf is highfalutin only to those who haven’t read her. The chatty offhand charm and modesty of her essays impress and please. The humbling phase comes when you re-read, and see how simple she’s made complex matters, yet how rounded, deep, and full her expression.
I turned again to “How Should One Read a Book?” because after a while a reviewer tends to ask himself what he thinks he’s doing. What’s fair? Relevant? This weighed on me in wondering how to assess, for my recent review, Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. I found this fine book marred by one major flaw in Kerasote’s judgment. I was uncertain how serious my disagreement is for the book, and puzzled by the issues it raised for reviewing in general.
Woolf, in stepping back to see the forest of literature, does provide some guidance in how to asses its individual trees:
1. Open your mind
At first, she says, try to move in tune with the author. “Be his fellow-worker and accomplice” rather than his critic: “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.”
Thankfully, I feel I did a good job initially of moving in tune with Kerasote. And even as my hackles rose over his letting his dog roam, I admired him for being himself. For admitting what he must’ve known would upset some readers. Granted, he doesn’t appear fully aware of how maddening his practice is to some of us, but he does explain his thinking; steadily he reveals himself throughout, which is brave in its way.
Woolf addresses this:
How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us—so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.
I take this to mean that my faulting Kerasote on a matter of judgment—and in this case the preponderance of opinion is on my side—was within bounds.
2. Learn to read by trying to write
Who can’t help but agree that to discern it helps to have done, or tried to do. Some great and famous editors were not great writers, just as many coaches weren’t great players themselves. But in each case they understood their chosen business from the inside.
A practitioner’s tough love, here:
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.
But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions. Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself.
Now, she says, read the opening pages by a great novelist—she suggests Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy—and see their mastery and the great differences between their reality, their worlds, from open-air adventure to the drawing room’s subtleties to the lonely moor’s dark mysteries.
Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that. 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.
3. Read lesser books & even rubbish
These are those lives and letters mentioned above, works of craft—books that don’t necessarily aspire to art. They can be made to “light up many windows of the past,” but also can stoke one’s own creative musing:
Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase? How delightful to stop reading and look out! How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement—the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan. 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 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!
And yet, we must move on, for lesser works lack the “artist’s power of mastering and eliminating.” Having failed to “tell the whole truth,” having “disfigured the story that might have been so shapely,” they can only offer facts. Not Woolf’s “purer truth of fiction.”
4. Read poetry
“The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then—how sudden and complete is our immersion!”
Woolf cites first a heartbreaking lament from the 16th Century song Westron Wynde, which probably is even older in origin—from a fragment if medieval poetry:
Western wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!
And the time to read poetry is “when we are almost able to write it,” she says, going on to cite, so as to show their differing emotional expressiveness, verses of “force and directness,” of “wavering modulation,” of meditative calm,” of “complete and inexhaustible loveliness,” and of “splendid fantasy.”
I love Woolf’s unabashed passion and how it endorses one’s own deeply personal emotional response to literature—which, after all, is made from emotion and is meant to move us, engendering an emotional response its very purpose. Like the blinded Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear, we might, using our great human asset of emotion, apprehend the world fully, “see it feelingly.”
Remember always, Woolf says, that with the lever of his great power to shift our perspective, “The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion.”
5. Wait, then give tough love
Having been open to an author, once “the dust of reading” has settled we must come to judgment. One of Woolf’s most useful tips is to wait till a book, first experienced in varying impressions, floats “to the top of the mind as a whole.” And the book having revealed itself as a “barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral,” she writes, “Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind.”
Ouch. While judging isn’t as simple as reading and receiving impressions, Woolf admits, the task must be done to complete the reading process. One may be tempted to leave this to the “gowned and furred” experts:
Yet how impossible! We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our identity as we read. But we know that we cannot sympathise 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.
6. Learn from experts as you train your taste
Some critics, however, including gifted fellow practitioners whom Woolf enjoys for their inside knowledge, can “steady” us in this difficult task of assessment: “But they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.”
And though reading a book “calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment,” and Woolf considers it unlikely that even after a lifetime if reading someone can “make any valuable contribution to its criticism,” ordinary readers have responsibilities and even importance.
Here Woolf winds down her metaphor-rich advice with a mystical bit I love—it’s so very Virginia in its generous sense of connection and in its vision of ultimate holism:
The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print.
. . .
If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not 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.
And, anyway, reading is its own reward—the closest we can come to heaven on earth, she ends.
Wise, warm, and witty, our fellow reader Virginia Woolf is always so much fun.
Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?”concludes her collection The Second Common Reader and also is available free around the web by googling it.