Friday, March 28, 2008

Virginia Woolf: "Modern Fiction" and "How Should One Read a Book?"

Before reading To the Lighthouse again, I wanted to read some of Woolf’s essays from both volumes of The Common Reader. I have posted several excerpts below from “Modern Fiction” and “How Should One Read a Book?” that I think will prove useful in understanding Woolf's works as well as benefiting reading in general.

From “Modern Fiction” (April 1919):
Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. [emphasis mine]

Here we have one of the most useful lines in understanding not just Woolf’s approach but most Modernist works in general. This section, which preceded the above quote, helps as well:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions--trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

One last quote from this essay regarding “modern writers”:

For the moderns "that", the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology. At once, therefore, the accent falls a little differently; the emphasis is upon something hitherto ignored; at once a different outline of form becomes necessary, difficult for us to grasp, incomprehensible to our predecessors.

How Should One Read a Book?

After mentioning that the fastest way to appreciate the task a novelist faces is to try and write about some event in your life, Woolf says:

But also we can read such books with another aim, not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people, but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers. Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase? How delightful to stop reading and look out! How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement--the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan. The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys.

Woolf outlines the two processes in reading: reading as closely as possible, then comparing with other works.

It would be foolish, then, to pretend that the second part of reading, to judge, to compare, is as simple as the first--to open the mind wide to the fast flocking of innumerable impressions. 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 to say, "Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails; here it succeeds; this is bad; that 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; impossible for the most self-confident to find more than the seeds of such powers in himself.

Not just a refreshing defense of judging literature, but a challenge to do so for yourself—not relying on critics but doing your own heavy lifting. I’ve only read these two essays, but I hope to read more. Woolf’s style mimics a stimulating conversation with a beloved aunt.

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