“How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf (1925)

She’s having trouble answering her own question

“How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf (1925)

  • I can only answer for myself because you really ought not take advice from others. Just follow your instincts, use reason & come up with your own conclusions
    • These are merely suggestions – don’t give up your independence
    • Difficult to say what is a better book
    • To take authority at its opinion is to give up your freedom
      • To keep & enjoy freedom, we have to control ourselves, not squander powers, helplessly & ignorantly – train our powers
    • Books are written by all sorts of people with different moods, ages, backgrounds competing with each other for attention
      • Where to begin?
    • Categories should be kept separate for what they give us
      • We ask wrong things of books & should banish all preconceptions. Try to understand the author & don’t dictate to him. To do otherwise is preventing getting much out of the book
      • Chapters in books are like bricks in a house
    • Understanding how difficult is to write will help you appreciate the author, his language & use of story. It gives you conflicting impressions, some with emphasis, others subtly
      • Those with mastery can take us to another world. These worlds vary from author to author, atmosphere to atmosphere but with consistency unto themselves with consistent laws created by the author according to perspective
      • They may place a strain on us but they won’t confuse us
      • To go from one another to another is to be uprooted & thrown around. It demands the finesse of perception & boldness of imagination to use what the author gives  you
  • Most authors aren’t artists.
    • Biographies & autobiographies of long dead men – should we not read them because they’re not art? Or should we read them differently?
    • They show us daily affairs, toils, failures, successes, loves, hatreds. It allows us to live exotic lives, meeting nobles & famous people, to travel or experience debates between great minds in different times & places
    • Makes us ask: How far is a book influenced by a writer’s life? How much should resists or accept his sympathies & antipathies
  • We can also read books to recharge our creative powers by imagining views & visions described in a book
    • All genres of literature have garbage in it but even reading that can provide visions, feelings, etc. It can inspire your own creations or color other books you’ll read
    • Reading garbage can wear on you but you can get something out of it. It leaves you longing for good works
  • Poetry has a strong & direct impact that immerses us
    • We are helpless to its effects & the poet is always our contemporary
    • The sensations ring out of the rest of our minds, deeper & echo & reflect within us
      • Emotions: force & directness, wavering modulation, meditative calm, complete & inexhaustible loveliness & pure fantasy
    • We are readers & actors at the same time
  • Complexity of reading
    • We receive impressions with understanding but after we’ve finished reading, we must reflect on it
    • Without willing it, nature will cause the mind to return to the book, receiving it in several separate phases, allowing us to compare it to another book
    • We stop being the writer’s friend & become his judges. We cannot be too sympathetic or too severe in our judgments. We must be brutal
    • Ask: Are they liars, corrupters, enemies of society or just wasting our time?
    • Compare them to the great works & ask of poetry: Does it have the ability to resonate once the initial intoxication & shock wears off?
      • Comparison is harder because it requires you to tell where the book succeeds & where & why it fails
    • Within us is a love & hatred & we should use this voice along with reasons why we do love or hate the text in our judgment
    • With our tastes as our guides, we can search for qualities grouping books in a category, naming them & creating rules brings order to our perceptions
    • Some writers are able to be on both sides of the equation
  • To read a book as it should be read requires the rarest qualities of imagination, insight & judgments
    • If this is true, reading is a very difficult art – being a very good critic
      • But we should try anyway
      • Many books survive criticism , some are pardoned if criticized wrongly
      • If the critic was wrong, we must be able to provide judgment ourselves
  • We don’t just read to have read the  book as if there is a reward afterward. The act of reading is the reward itself

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