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Proust and Woolf on Reading and Freedom


Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf reflected on reading and the effects it has on our thoughts and our behavior.

Reading is a lonely, silent exercise. ––An activity which demands that we retire momentarily from the world to substitute it for another world of signs and ghosts, and which we make our own as we go deciphering it.

It is precisely because of these characteristics that reading, in the way we currently practice it and have been practicing it for at least a couple centuries, is one of the most effective paths to self-awareness and freedom –– A bridge that we build independently, intimately, but which at the end connects us with our peers, our time and our reality.

This manner of understanding and practicing reading is stunningly described by Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, whose catalogues of personal works include some essays that reflect on the purpose of reading.

In Woolf’s case, her thoughts on reading can be found in at least three texts: ‘Hours in a Library’, ‘The Common Reader’ and ‘How Should One Read a Book?’ which belong to different periods but share one thing: the liberating character of reading.

Painting of woman holding book in front of her mouth.

In response to an eminently masculine and rigorous study, Woolf had a looser perspective on reading. She considered it to be a procedure which is actually hedonistic and spontaneous, not completely blind to advice and indications, and which also trusts haphazardness and luck, whim and surprise; the possibility of scorning the norm in order to find the freedom that makes us human: ‘to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading,’ she writes in “Hours in a Library.”

According to Woolf, reading is an intellectual practice where we give up our own thoughts and allow someone else’s to take over, to then return to ourselves: we lose ourselves to find ourselves:

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.

(‘How Should One Read a Book?’)

Proust, on the other hand, expresses similar thoughts on reading, although perhaps less explicitly. In his text ‘Sur la lecture’, which he originally wrote as the prologue for his French translation of Sesame and Lilies, by John Ruskin, he recalls childhood’s ‘most fully lived’ days, ‘those that we spent with our favorite book’. Using the Proustian style, where a hypothesis is combined and proven by memories and the mind’s creations, the text develops emotionally through scenes from a lost time, but one which is remembered fondly. The opening motif of the child reading to himself in a corner in a house is accompanied by other impressions, other scenes, details that lose their triviality in the beauty of the description, and suddenly, as readers, we discover that we have witnessed the birth of an unexpected world. In what way? Well, in the reassembling of the reading.

With a subtle, implied procedure, Proust shows us that reading gives us the key, the map and the compass to explore what we are, to submerge ourselves in those profound areas where he believed the truth was found, the most authentic part of ourselves. A first step that, all in all, is not conclusive:

And this is, effectively, one of the greatest and most marvellous qualities of beautiful books (which will allow us to understand the essential and limited role that literature plays in our spiritual life) something that, for the author, could be called ‘Conclusions’ and for the reader ‘Incitements’. We are aware that our wisdom begins where the author ends, and we would like him to give us the answers when the only thing he can do for us is arouse our desires. And the only way he can awaken those desires is by making us contemplate the supreme beauty that the last effort of art has allowed us to reach. Furthermore, a singular providential law of the mind’s perspective (a law which means that we might not be able to receive the truth from anyone and that we must create it ourselves), the end of his wisdom simply presents itself to us as the beginning of our own, so that once everything that could be said to us has been said, from deep within us emerges the suspicion that we have not been told anything at all.


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