“Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, or poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that is shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning.”(How One Should Read a Book. Renard Press Ltd. 2021, p.7)
Technically, How Should One Read a Book by Virginia Woolf is not a book. It’s a published speech. But, I bought it in a bookstore, it has a binding and a cover, and the content is based on reading, understanding and critiquing printed literature, so I’m including it as a book review.
I bought this small book in the most charming bookstore, Winding Stair Bookstore, in Dublin City, Ireland. My parents, sister and I were almost at the end of a two-week holiday in England and Ireland and were enjoying a brisk, sunny walk through the city center when we spotted the store.
Being avid readers, all four of us were keen on picking up some new reading materials. In addition to buying Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales, I purchased two Virginia Woolf titles, Mrs. Dalloway and How Should One Read a Book. The latter, a tiny volume described as celebrating “the importance of the written word,” piqued my interest. Plus, I had surprisingly never read any titles by Virginia Woolf. As an aspiring author, I thought this printed essay would give me some food for thought. It sure did!
When I was young, as in school-aged, I never ever wrote in or dog-eared books. Probably because the laws of librarians scared me into submission to not violate the sanctity of a fresh binding, clean sheets and unscarred margins. However, in the past few years, I have loved the intimacy of making physical marks in my books as the words, in turn, make metaphysical marks on me. I don’t always underline, circle or annotate my books, but I definitely whip out my favorite Pilot G2-07 pens when I come across phrases that need to be called out for easy reference. In the case of How Should One Read a Book, my pen got quite a bit of use—at least half of the 23 pages of text had at least one sentence underlined.
I suppose in some ways there is quite a bit of irony in critiquing a published & bound essay that proposes that we should not read a book to critique it. Perhaps I may be forgiven as these blog book reviews are usually guiding overviews of the merits of titles that I read. I never mean for these book reviews to be academic analyses or cultural commentary; instead, I see them as footnotes of which books I read during certain seasons of life and what stood out from those readings. While I hope that the readers find a moment of amusement by my words, I am more interested in inspiring someone to pick up a new book (or revisit an old one). I may offer the suggestion that the reader may enjoy the subject of my review, but I am not asserting that they would or wouldn’t just because I did or didn’t. I would like to think that Virginia would have understood and applauded my purpose in that.
“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 not improve the quality of the work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.”
So, for whatever it is worth, my review is that everyone should read this essay at some point. In fact, I wish it had been required reading at some point in my schooling. But maybe that’s missing Woolf’s point completely. For as she said,
“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.”
This book may be for you if you also like: literary criticism; Virginia Woolf (as an author or notable historical figure); education; poetry; wisdom; creative nonfiction; England; Kensington; book reviews; quick reads; essays; Ireland; book stores.