Brain Pickings

Virginia Woolf on How to Read a Book

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“Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice.”

“The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his treatise on what makes a good reader. “Part of a reader’s job is to find out why certain writers endure,” advised Francine Prose in her guide to reading like a writer. “My encounters with books I regard very much as my encounters with other phenomena of life or thought. All encounters are configurate, not isolate.” Henry Miller confessed in his reflections on a lifetime of reading. But how, exactly, does one read a book, and read it well? That’s precisely what Virginia Woolf addressed in a 1925 essay titled “How Should One Read a Book?,” found in The Second Common Reader (public library; public domain) — the same collection of 26 exquisite essays that gave us Woolf’s critique of criticism and a Literary Jukebox treat.

Woolf begins with the same disclaimer of subjectivity that John Steinbeck issued half a century later in his six timeless tips on writing. She writes:

The only advice … 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. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at the liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions — there we have none.

She cautions against bringing baggage and pre-conceived notions to your reading:

[F]ew people ask from books what books can give us. 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. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.

Woolf reminds us of the osmotic skills of reading and writing:

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 with words.

To exercise the imagination, she argues, is itself a special skill:

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you.

As a hopeless lover of old diaries and letters, I was particularly taken with Woolf’s insight into the appeal of such literary voyeurism — especially given Woolf was a notable diarist herself:

How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

But also we can read such books with another aim, not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people, but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers.

Woolf moves on to the intricacies of poetry, adding to other famous meditations on what a poem is and what makes it good:

The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then — how sudden and complete is our immersion! There is nothing here to catch hold of; nothing to stay us in our flight. … The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centered and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion. Afterwards, it is true, the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections. The intensity of poetry covers an immense range of emotion.

But despite this mystical mesmerism of the experience itself, Woolf reminds us, the true gift of reading takes place in that incubation period wherein ephemeral impressions become integrated and manifest as deeper ideas:

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 judgement upon those 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.

In a testament to the notion that all creativity builds on what came before, echoing her own teenage insight on imitation and the arts and resonating with Henry Miller’s contention that “the vast body of literature, in every domain, is composed of hand-me-down ideas,” Woolf observes:

[W]e may be sure that the newness of new poetry and fiction is its most superficial quality and that we have only to alter slightly, not to recast, the standards by which we have judged the old.

She argues — beautifully — for the cultivation of taste, a concept we’ve seen paralleled in science, pointing to the very tuning of this compass for excellence as the ultimate existential reward of the art of reading:

It would be foolish … to pretend that the second part of reading, to judge, to compare, is as simple as the first — to open the mind wide to the fast flocking of innumerable impressions. To continue reading without the book before you, to hold one shadow-shape against another, to have read widely enough and with enough understanding to make such comparisons alive and illuminating — that is difficult; it is still more difficult to press further and to say, ‘Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails; here it succeeds; this is bad; that is good.’ To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive any one mind sufficiently endowed; impossible for the most self-confident to find more than the seeds of such powers in himself. Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics, the gowned and furred authorities of the library, to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible! We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our won identity as we read. But we know that we cannot sympathize wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, ‘I hate, I love,’ and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable. And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it. But as time goes on perhaps we can train our taste; perhaps we can make it submit to some control. When it has fed greedily and lavishly upon books of all sorts — poetry, fiction, history, biography — and has stopped reading and looked for long spaces upon the variety, the incongruity of the living world, we shall find that it is changing a little; it is not so greedy, it is more reflective.

In a passing remark, as she frequently does, Woolf articulates a truth that extends far beyond literature and applies to just about every aspect of life:

[N]othing is easier and more stultifying than to make rules which exist out of touch with facts, in a vacuum.

One of her most important points deals with the collective influence we exert as an audience on the nature and quality of what is being written:

[I]f to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment, you may perhaps conclude that literature is a very complex art and that it is unlikely that we shall be able, even after a lifetime of reading, to make any valuable contribution to its criticism. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print.

This point, while timeless, is timelier than ever today, when we choose — with our clicks, with our subscriptions, with our sharing, with your loyalty — the types of writing and media that get produced. At a time when the reader is being reduced to a monetizable pageview-eyeball, there’s only so much pagination, so much “sponsored content,” and so many slideshows we can take — the hope is that slowly, if painfully, the media landscape will begin to shift to reflect, and respect, the art of reading and begin to treat the reader as a true “fellow-worker and accomplice.”

Woolf reminds us, gently yet assertively, of the value of the amateur in driving culture forward:

If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this improve the quality of his work?

Ultimately, Woolf — an eloquent champion of the joy of reading — considers reading not a means to some intellectual end, but an intellectual and creative reward in itself:

I have sometimes dreamt, at least, 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, those need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’

Complement The Second Common Reader with a history of reading.

Stacks image courtesy Cincinnati Public Library; remaining public domain images via Flickr Commons

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