How Should One Read a Book?: An essay by Virginia Woolf

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past week about why I blog and join in literary discussions on social media, especially Twitter.  I know a lot of my fellow bloggers have struggled with these same questions.  In addition to my blog being a personal record of my reading tastes from year to year, it also allows me to be a part of a supportive, literary community that has similar ideas, thoughts, opinions, tastes, etc. about books.  I would never have discovered, for instance, authors such a Karoline Von Günderrode, Dorothy Richardson or Roland Buti (just to name a few) without the recommendations from my fellow book lovers.  I am delighted to be a part of a community that welcomes ideas and thoughts about books from all readers, without judgement, scorn or vitriol.  We don’t always agree on the quality or merit of a book, but criticism is given in a respectful, kind way.  I feel that we follow the spirit behind Woolf’s opening paragraph in her essay, “How Should One Read a Book?”:

Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you.  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.  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.  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, and 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.

And I will also share the concluding paragraph of the essay which I enjoyed:

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, these need no reward.  We have nothing to give them here.  They have loved reading.’



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16 responses to “How Should One Read a Book?: An essay by Virginia Woolf

  1. Rohan Maitzen

    I have that last quotation on my office door, partly in reaction to the oft-told lie that somehow studying literature is antithetical to loving reading.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Agree with those sentiments about the blogging community, Melissa. Great quotes too

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely quotes Melissa. Like you, my blog is part reading record, part wish to share and interact with other readers. Respectful is the key word – we saw some disrespect on Twitter this week which was quite unnecessary, and you were right to call the person out – there was no need for that. We should be able to air our differences in a mature and reasoned way!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ali

    I just wanted to comment that I found your blog a while ago, and I read it regularly though this is the first time I’m commenting. I studied Latin in high school (took the AP test for Vergil, as well as for Horace and Catullus) so I enjoy your posts about the ancients. In fact, I especially enjoyed your post about To the Lighthouse and the connections you made with the classical world. (I was reading it at the same time–though I haven’t finished yet because I became engrossed in Bowen’s The Death of the Heart–so I appreciated your insights.)

    I also enjoyed your posts about Fontane (Effi Briest and Irretrievable are favorites of mine).

    Anyway, I just wanted you to know I really enjoy your blog for your insights and your posting about interesting books that are not your typical “literary fare.” That why I enjoy coming here to read your posts.


  5. Deepika Ramesh

    Thank you for this lovely post, Melissa. I wanted to read this post. I began reading Jodi Picoult’s ‘Small Great Things’ a couple of nights ago. I had read just about 20 pages and it made me cry a couple of times. I love when books make me cry. Before I went to bed that night, I read some negative reviews on Goodreads and also Roxane Gay’s review of the book, and I was not sure if I could continue. But I had a feeling that I was not true to myself. The book spoke to me, but I was not allowing it to talk to me further because the reviews said Picoult’s voice was not authentic. Now that I have read your post, I want to go back to the book because I think it’s okay for a book to be loathed by other for various reasons, but it began to move me in some way, then I must create the space for that book. Thank you again for this post. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Wonderful and poaching.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great quotations. Virginia Woolf definitely has a lot of sound advice to offer us, and a unique way of seeing the world which I’m pleased she had opportunity to share. I, too, wonder why I blog; what is it for, and what am I trying to achieve? But it is nice to share my reading experiences and, like you, I have discovered books I wouldn’t otherwise thanks to the sharing nature of the blogging community. The jury’s still out on Twitter, I find it oppressively negative and doom-laden, but the blogging community is something else entirely.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Oh Virginia – so often, so inspiring.

    I love the very different ways bloggers approach their reading and their writing about their reading. Blogging is the closest I intend to get to social media – I don’t Insta face twit chat or any of the other variations. I like blogging and reading blogs because a blog post can be long enough to explore subtlety. Unless someone is a master of haiku I suspect Twitter is bound to be one solo note in a single unadorned shape and colour.


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