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How to Read a Book Like Virginia Woolf?

Reading a book, Virginia Woolf-style, is not all that difficult. Reading—if one enjoys this chore, as I suppose you would if reading this essay—like everything else, is a banal activity.

It certainly comes with its techniques and rules. It requires knowing how to internalise what you have just read as much as enjoying the process of reading. But there is more to reading than just sitting in one corner of a room and reading.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), an English novelist and essayist, in the essay “How should one read a book?” tells us the art of (living to) read books. I came across Woolf pretty late in my life.

Regretfully, I have never had a passionate liking for literature for long—and when I did, in my bachelor’s, I came across Woolf through her book A Room of One’s Own. In the book, Woolf writes: “A woman must have money and room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

George Charles Beresford Virginia Woolf in 1902 Restoration
Portrait of Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882 – March 28, 1941), a British author and feminist, with her chignon. | Wikimedia Commons
How should one read a book?

Imagine yourself to be in a room full of books. Fiction, prose, poetry, biographies, and other such books exist. Some discuss history, and there are those that tell you a story—all sorts of books. If you are in a library, you will encounter such spectacles.

As a reader, you may wonder: Where do I begin? How should I start reading a book? What should I do while reading one? These are the questions Woolf sets out to answer in this beautiful essay.

Woolf sets out with a caveat:

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 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.

She adds:

Few 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.

Woolf admits that reading is a pleasurable activity—and we cannot even describe that pleasure. This mysteriously enjoyable activity should be approached as such.

If you pick up a book and look for facts to remember, as some of us do, the whole activity of reading becomes a monotonous venture of fact-keeping and fact-archiving in the brain.

Therefore, despite reading seeming so simple— “a mere matter of knowing the alphabet”—it is difficult to tell if anyone knows how to read a book.

read a book
A Room Full of Antiquated Books | Photo by Paul Melki on Unsplash

Books have a great deal in common; they are always overflowing their boundaries; they are always breeding new species from unexpected matches among themselves. It is difficult to know how to approach them, to which species each belongs. But if we remember, as we turn to the bookcase, that each of these books was written by a pen which, consciously or unconsciously tried to trace out a design, avoiding this, accepting that, adventuring the other; if we try to follow the writer in his experiment from the first word to the last, without imposing our design upon him, then we shall have a good chance of getting hold of the right end of the string.

Read a book like its author writes it.

Don’t start reading by judging—instead, know how the author writes. Each writer follows a method, a technique, and a flair that is unique to them. Some writers play with commas in every sentence, like in The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid; others write very short sentences (see The New Yorker essays).

There are those of us who like to do both. “Even if you wish merely to read books, begin by writing them. For this certainly is true—one cannot write a most ordinary little story, attempt to describe the simplest event—meeting a beggar, shall we say, in the street, without coming up against difficulties that the greatest of novelists have had to face.”

How would a writer think of describing meeting a beggar on the street? Woolf picks up three writers—Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, and Thomas Hardy—and juxtaposes them.

Defoe, a masterful narrator, would focus on perfect order and simplicity. One thing follows another. One event led to the other without allowing the reader confused.

On the other hand, Austen would focus her attention on the characters rather than the buzzing background (streets, wide alleys, etc.). She would describe the beggar through three lenses: his own reflection of his life, how his daughter looks at his life, and as Austen herself sees him.

Unlike Defoe and Austen, Hardy would do something very different with the beggar. He would transform the street into a “sombre heath”—relationships are not between people but between person and nature.

One should read different genres differently.

In essence, Woolf’s point is simple: know how a writer writes their prose—and you will enjoy reading the book. You should not be judgemental at once and be more open to experimentation.

Every writer has their own approach—and their aims are different too. They write differently. And they should be read as such—differently. But reading differently is just one part of the puzzle. There are several genres of writing. They serve different purposes.

To be able to read books without reading them, to skip and saunter, to suspend judgement, to lounge and loaf down the alleys and bye-streets of letters is the best way of rejuvenating one’s creative power.

All biographies and memoirs—filled with facts—push our reading boundaries, allowing us to read works of “pure imagination further”. Biographies and memoirs are not meant to induce pleasure, as we would expect from a novelist. Their purpose is different.

Similarly, poetry is different from fiction. Reading poetry requires a different thinking than reading both biography and fiction.

It is necessary to have in hand an immense reserve of imaginative energy in order to attack steeps of poetry. Here are none of those gradual introductions, those resemblances to the familiar world of daily life with which the novelist entices us into his world of imagination. … Thus, in order to read poetry rightly, one must be in a rash, an extreme, a generous state of mind in which many of the supports and comforts of literature are done without. Its power of make-believe, its representative power, is dispensed with in favour of its extremities and extravagances. The representation is often at a very far remove from the thing represented, so that we have to use all our energies of mind to grasp the relation between, for example, the song of a nightingale and the image and ideas which that song stirs in the mind. Thus reading poetry often seems a state of rhapsody in which rhyme and metre and sound stir the mind as wine and dance stir the body, and we read on, understanding with the sense, not with the intellect, in a state of intoxication. Yet all this intoxication and intensity of delight depend upon the exactitude and truth of the image, on its being the counterpart of the reality within.

Did you get lost there for a second? Poetry doesn’t require you to use your mind but your heart to action. It does not seek out logic but humanly affective aspects. Say you read the book like it is supposed to be read—like how its writer wrote it. Now, you have turned the last of its pages.

Once, after finishing a book, Woolf notes, the reader “must cease to be the friend; [and] must become the judge”. For her, reading is not merely “sympathizing and understanding; it is also criticizing and judging”.

Judgements are essential. And we provide them all the time. But, this time (perhaps after reading this essay and perhaps after finishing another book), you will know that you are judging it consciously.

How do we judge a book, then?

When we want to decide a particular case, we can best help ourselves, not by reading criticism, but by realizing our own impression as acutely as possible and referring this to the judgements which we have gradually formulated in the past. There they hang in the wardrobe of our mind—the shapes of the books we have read, as we hung them up and put them away when we had done with them.

We should judge each book from what our impression of it is, rather than what others tell us its impression is (but this is difficult to achieve, as our impressions are always mediated by what others tell us is good and bad).

However, as Woolf prefaces this text, always mend rules as you read. Don’t follow someone, something that does not work for you. But a general primer of Woolf’s guide sorts will always help.

Remember, a good reader will always read as the author writes it. And let’s hope to be good readers.

Complement this brilliant essay with Orwell’s guide to writing well.

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Suggested Readings:

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

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A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.

Buy the book on Amazon

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