reading · Virginia Woolf

How to read a book?

The Second Common Reader. Virginia Woolf

Reading has been a subject of interest for a long time now. From the process itself to habits one develops around it, from the choices of literature to the history of reading, its every aspect has a way of arousing my curiosity. If I feel overwhelmed by literature there’s almost one hundred percent certainty that I will reach for a book about reading.

I’ve been keen on rereading Woolf’s The Common Reader series and #Woolfalong, hosted by Ali, was the push I needed. As usual, though, I am late with the blog post.

I read both volumes almost ten years ago, but could not remember much. A wish to reacquaint with her way of reading was the reason I wanted to reread these books, especially The Second Common Reader, so I paid attention and kept extensive notes only to come to the final essay (How to read a book?) in which she actually sums it all up. That I could not remember much of these books was an understatement, it seems. I completely forgot about the existence of the aforementioned essay.

Well, at least I can find some solace and satisfaction in seeing that my notes caught the essence of her reading process with precision.

So, here it is:

  • take from each what it is right that each should give us” – fiction, biography, and poetry should be read differently
  • open your mind as widely as possible” so that it can pick up signs and hints, finesses of the book. ”Do not dictate to you author; try to become him.”
  • write, ”make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words” so you will better understand what the writer is doing
  • read biographies, letters, diaries to
    • see if a novel or a poem will read ”differently in the presence of the author
    • exercise our own creative powers
  • wait for the dust of reading to settle” – engage in some physical or social activity so the book will have time to take shape in your mind
  • compare, judge – the most difficult part of the reading process, a continually developing skill. ”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 say, ‘Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails, here it succeeds; this is bad, this 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;
  • turn to critics, ”to the very rare writers who are able to enlighten us upon literature as an art”. Keep in mind though that ”they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading.”

12 thoughts on “How to read a book?

  1. Some excellent tips here. I endorse the one about letting a book settle. It’s why I find it difficult to immediately write a review. I want to cogitation a bit and let key ideas percolate before committing to paper or the blog. Problem is I can often leave it too long and then find I need to reread certain passages to,remind myself of the style etc.

    1. Yes! I have the same problem – leaving a book to settle for too long and then coming to the point where I forget what my impressions were, what thoughts I had, what were the key things I wanted to mention, etc.. This happens on a regular basis, I am afraid.

        1. Yes!
          Starting a journal is a good idea.
          I have had a reading diary for a long time, but I didn’t feel free to scribble every thought or quote I would get during reading. Diary demands a text, not a bunch of notes. That’s where journal steps in. It truly helps.

  2. I love this essay, and I admire your boldness in even mentioning it in book blog world. I mean, it ain’t much followed.

    The original audience for this essay, which was first a talk, was female Yale undergraduates, if that makes any difference.

    1. Thank you for the information, Tom. I did not know that it was intended for students. It certainly gives a different perspective, though I don’t know if it makes a difference.
      Thank you for your words of admiration as well. I’m not sure if I deserve them… This blog is a reading diary (though still quite underdeveloped), and even though it gained a very nice group of regular readers (I consider myself their friend), I write with only my present and my future self in mind. I write it to myself…

      Then again, even if I wrote with an audience in mind, I dare say I would still write the same… These kind of posts, this kind of content gives food for thought and invites conversation, which is always welcomed.
      I love Woolf’s essay, and I intend to get back to it every so often.

      And let me use this opportunity to say that I admire your blog very much. It’s original and insightful, a great example of good reading.

    1. I read almost all Woolf’s novels before getting them on my own shelves. With Wolf, however, the opposite is true. I have read only Medea, but I have accumulated four other titles. Their time is now, as you know.
      Sometimes the right time for a book comes ‘naturally’, like a wave; at other times one has to encourage it a little bit.
      I did give Wolf a gentle push and things seem to be going pretty well.

  3. Wise words, I’ve been after these books for a while now, although not willing to go the easy Amazon route to get them. I really need to find me copies of this series now.

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