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>Virginia Woolf, Reading and Me

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Strange as it may seem, I never really thought of Virginia Woolf as a reader before now. Writer? Yes. Intellectual? Yes. Innovator? Yes. Fragile? Yes. Reader? Not really. I was aware and applauded the fact that she loved Middlemarch and vaguely aware that she wrote essays about books but Virginia Woolf, reader? Wow. I had enough “disconnect” to fill a silo.

According to biographer Hermione Lee, “The confident enjoyment of the intimacy which comes from reading is one of the main sources of happiness in Virginia Woolf’s life. Reading, quite as much as writing is her life’s pleasure and her life’s work. She is always comparing reading to other forms of behavior and experience — relationships, walking, travelling, dreaming, desire, memory, illness. When she writes about reading she makes it overlap with those other things. Often her female characters…will look up over the pages of a book or a newspaper at the beginning of their train of thought.”

Yep, there you have it. That’s the litmus test that decides which people merely ‘like to read’ and which ones are Capital-R-Readers.

I’m going to quote Hermione Lee a great deal in this post because she sums up so beautifully. (Between Lee and Woolf, I need not utter a word, but I’ll jump in when I can’t contain myself any longer.)

“[Woolf’s] reading and re-reading she does in the transitional years between Night And Day and Jacob’s Room — Hardy, Proust, the Russians, Chaucer — is as important to her life story as any of her relationships. During this time, she evolved a way of writing about her reading somewhere between notebook, diary, fiction and criticism.” In her essays, Woolf was very much about having a ‘conversation’ with her readers rather than just imparting information and her opinion.

.We book bloggers owe a debt of gratitude to Virginia Woolf for pioneering this style. We not only read and review, we notice our patterns of reading and often a playfulness and wonderful expanse of imagination emerges. For example, the memes about reading that we circulate, the twice-a-year Readathon and the Bookword Game in which we coin new words to describe our reading experiences more fully seem to have been influenced by Virginia Woolf who would have loved our community. I know she’d be 128 years old and probably not alive even if she hadn’t decided to take that final journey to the Ouse River, but I wish she could come back now with her superb intellect intact and be a hella book blogger. Her delight would be my delight.

Woolf never seemed to tire of examining the act of reading. It was so many things to her: A way to be “steeped in imagination” (trust an Englishwoman to come up with such an evocative phrase that would link reading and tea!), a way to receive “shocks of emotion”, escape, release, addiction, erotic rapture (feeling as if she’s “getting full” of a book), vigorous exercise (as in reading Shakespeare), sunbathing (which is what she felt reading essays was most like “a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life – a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure.”) She also enjoyed it when she could find a book to match her mood exactly.

Lee also suggests that “the pleasure of reading was an act of love.” Those elements of “longing for loss of self” are present. Also, being a serious reader means always being involved in a book which means “a perpetual marriage, a perpetual union.”

Woolf says it best: What a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me! I went in & found the table laden with books. I looked in & sniffed them all. I could not resist carrying this one off and broaching it. I think I could happily live here and read for ever.

I wish that she had noted which book she carried off so I could have a complete picture of her happily making her way to her study or her garden with the book under her arm. The book-sniffing was nice, too — so unexpected, so fun, so human and so unlike my preconceptions of the formidable Virginia Woolf.

Getting overwhelmed by such a myriad of emotions and sensations would be so easy, but Virginia Woolf always had the author in her sights. In a 1926 lecture entitled “How To Read A Book”, Woolf advises her audience to “track your author down”, see him “leaving things out on purpose” or “using certain words.” She advises the reader to become “the writer’s accomplice.”

I was so pleased to learn that Virginia Woolf did not annotate her books. She felt that annotating forced one’s reading onto a future reader. Instead, she kept reading notebooks. Lee describes these notebooks lovingly and meticulously: “She ruled margin the the notebooks, put the number of the page she was referring to in the margin and wrote next to that the quotation or comment.” Lee also notes that the reading notebooks are “a mixed bag” — on the backs of pages she might have a map she made planning Mrs. Dalloway’s walk in London, notes on writing, sketches for changes to hers and Leonard’s house and even paw prints from their pets. The sign of a mess or disorganized mind? Hardly — another example of how Woolf wanted reading, writing and life to infiltrate each other.

When it comes to discussing the reading process, Virginia Woolf seems so generous in sharing how she made meaning out of her reading. When books were finished, there was the process of “making it whole” in her mind. There would be that moment where there was “a flash of understanding” and another moment when the complete understanding of the book would “float to the top of the mind”. After that, “the effort to communicate about the book could begin, and the intimate union between book and reader opened out into comparisons and contexts.”

Virginia Woolf’s father chose not to send his daughters to school, so Virginia and her sister Vanessa were educated at home in her father’s vast library. Throughout her life, Woolf would continue to self-educate and set herself some strenuous reading lists, but she was not a book snob. She argued that reading “The Greats” would be “too isolating” (which is a problem that I have with the slavish following of books like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die). According to Woolf, we also need trashy novels “obscure memoirs, mediocre biographies…trivial ephemeral books.” Woolf added significantly at one point in her journal: “I ransack public libraries & find them full of sunk treasure.” I believe she would completely understand and get a kick out of my university library with its quirky English selections.

For Woolf, everything was reading and reading was everything. Books comforted, frustrated, changed and it was all part of one big patchwork. Virginia Woolf probably had to have it that way. For those of us who feel passionate about reading, leaving that world for ‘real life’ can be an unpleasant jolt. Wouldn’t someone as sensitive and finely-grained as Virginia Woolf have felt the strain of going back and forth much more keenly?


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