How To Read A Book, Virginia Woolf Tells You
In a marvelous essay, Woolf treats us to the tools needed to reach the deepest and widest pleasures of reading.
Before stepping into Virginia Woolf’s charming recommendations on how to read a book, first we should think about why read a book, and which is directly related to knowing how to be alone. The cultural aversion toward solitude ends up denying us its benefits, and reading is one of those; a nutritious act although essentially solitary. One reads, as Harold Bloom says, because “the proximity we can feel with the authors of our books is a proximity with ourselves.” Reading serves, among other things, to learn to enjoy our own company, and that is not idealism but pragmatism. “Reading serves to prepare us for change, and regrettably the ultimate change is universal,” Bloom says.
Woolf began her essay ‘How Should One Read a Book’ in 1925 with this wonderful warning: “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.” And having clarified that, Woolf proceeds to treat us to her suggestions for achieving the deepest and widest pleasures from reading.
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.
Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. 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; (…) Now you will be better able to appreciate their mastery.
Woolf reminds us that there is always a devil within us that whispers, “love this”, “hate that,” and that it is almost impossible to silence it. As a result we should try, as far as possible, to convert ourselves into authors. “Think with a foreign brain,” as Schopenhauer would say, and not dictate to the author as we read. After all, the real ‘understanding’ of a book, if it can be called thus, is not immediate but rather gradual; reading is only half of the process that is ruled by the laws of gravity.
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.
In this stupendous essay, contained in the book The Common Reader, Woolf urges us to never forget that reading is, above all, pleasurable, but a pleasure that unfolds like the rhizome of a fern, with time, even after having finished the book. Reading is a solitary pursuit but in which we are never alone. We become closer to ourselves to the extent that we are another, and we think with another’s brain that questions what we had taken as given. A good book never ends. It comes back as the past does, and as ghosts do, and it prepares us for change.
And to conclude, this charming suggestion: “that is the time to read poetry . . . when we are almost able to write it.”
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