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.”
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