Listening to an interview by Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4 the other day, I was delighted to learn that Virginia Woolf‘s classic essay How Should One Read a Book? has been republished in a new edition (12 October 2020).
I studied this text in school as part of my GCE ‘O’ level English Literature syllabus. Ironically, although I found Virginia Woolf’s novels quite challenging to read (although I loved Orlando), that is not the case for this essay. That’s probably because it was originally a talk given at a girls school in Sevenoaks in 1926. I still remember the impact Virginia’s words had on me. The essay is very accessible, and Virginia writes with passion on her subject.
One of her observations appeals to me: “you haven’t read a book properly until you’ve talked about it”. Brilliant! How that makes the heart of an author sing. Nowadays of course authors often look for their readers to “talk about” their books, either in book clubs, or by personal recommendation, or by posting an Amazon or Goodreads review online.
Authors and publishers also, of course, value professional reviews in the major periodicals and newspapers; and these reviews are often quoted at length in the front matter of very popular books. Personally, I prefer not to know the details of what other people think until I’ve read the book – or at least until I’m halfway through. I want to make my own response to the book.
But these are the days when everyday readers – all those out there who love reading books – have power, with their opinions and feelings. Every response to a book is valid. I remember my creative writing teacher at Lancaster University saying:
“Once you’ve written your book, and it’s published, and out in the world, it doesn’t belong to you any more. It becomes a Thing on the Table, for anybody to make what they want of it.”
This view is echoed by Philip Pullman , the author of His Dark Materials trilogy, who, in a recent very enjoyable Society of Authors webinar, said that while you are writing a book, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. You write what you like and you don’t worry what anybody else thinks: they can mind their own business. When it’s published it’s a different matter. It’s not yours any more. The world can then make what it likes of your book.
Passion for reading, for the different worlds you may enter and explore when you are a voracious reader, shines out from Virginia’s essay.
Here is one quote from Virginia Woolf which many readers have seized upon, as it confirms the joy and the richness of being a great reader. I quote this near the end of my author talk on The Power of Story – for one of my goals is to enhance or re-awaken a love of reading.
“I have sometimes dreamt … that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”Virginia Woolf, in The Second Common Reader
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2 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf on the art of reading a book”
You’ve reminded me – I listened to half of that Start the Week and meant to finish. I need to catch up on this Woolf text as I don’t think I’ve read it. I studied her at uni and, like you, didn’t find her an easy read. I think she was on the Modernist module for good reason!
I read with interest your latest post on Virginia Woolf. I too find her challenging. The interesting thing is that one of my tutors has just recommended one of her short stories to help me with my historical short story – assignment material – which spans several generations linking them to one photograph. It will be interesting to read her again after all these years.