Typical for yesterday afternoon, I was sitting at home flicking through the ‘review’ section of the Saturday Guardian (that’s the ‘bookish’ flavoured bit for those who don’t know), when I stumbled across a ‘rare’ reprint of Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘The Love of Reading’, taken from The Essays of Virginia Woolf Vol 5: 1929 to 1932. Well, I read the essay and I loved it (quite ironic really )), and it contains some of the best reader advice I’ve heard, and it’s advice that’s especially pertinent to the reviewer of books i.e. most of us who participate in the Sunday Salon. The Guardian have kindly reproduced the entire essay online, so I urge everyone to go and read it, but for my fellow Saloners I thought I’d try to summarise this ‘golden nugget’ of reader advice as best I can (apologises for my ineptitude ahead of time )), and provide my reasons for loving Woolf’s advice so much.
Making use of a courtroom analogy for illustration, Woolf’s ‘golden advice’ centres on a concept of adopting two distinct and separate ‘roles’ or ‘phases’ when reading a book. Whilst reading, the reader assumes the first role, that of ‘accomplice to the writer in his act of creation’, or using Woolf’s simple analogy to better explain, the reader should ‘sit with the criminal in the dock’ (the ‘criminal’ being the writer in this case), allowing the writer to simply speak to the reader as they had intended, in their true voice, without the reader subconsciously or not, showing any prejudice or preconception for what the writer is saying. During this phase the reader also resists any temptation to form an opinion as during reading “new impressions are always canceling or completing the old. Delight, anger, boredom, laughter succeed each other incessantly as we read. Judgment is suspended, for we cannot know what may come next.”
So the first phase of reading a book according to Woolf is simply to read it, and to listen with a clear mind to what the writer is saying. That’s sound advice because how often have you come to a book having preconceptions of the writer (maybe because you’ve read them before) or their work in question (maybe because you’ve heard opinions of it from others), and these preconceptions have then ‘clouded’ any opportunity the writer has to fully connect with you, and vice-versa? Worse still, how often have you begun to form quite concrete opinions on a book during the early stages of reading it, opinions that have ‘set’ regardless of how the book proceeds? I know I’m guilty of both of these ‘crimes’ and when I think of it, that’s a crazy way to read books. How can the merit of one book by an author, which is essentially a separate entity, be judged on the quality of another? Answer – it can’t! Even more preposterous – how can one pass opinion on something one does not yet know? Answer – one can’t! So it’s pretty fruitless trying, on both accounts. Better I think to come to a book with a blank, receptive mind and the good intention of just allowing the writer to speak to you, regardless of what you may already think of him/her. And better to listen to what that writer has to say without distraction, and without an ever-changing opinion of the work you’re reading.
The second ‘role’ or ‘phase’ comes after reading the book in a process Woolf cunningly calls ‘after-reading’ ). In this second role the reader ‘must leave the dock, mount the bench and become the judge’, for according to Woolf simply reading a book is not enough, and the reader must judge and criticise a book in order to have fully performed in their role as reader (this ‘judgment’ of a book is especially pertinent if you’re a reviewer of course). However this critical analysis should never take place until the book has been fully read, because as Woolf eloquently explains:
“..now the book is completed. It has taken a definite shape. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in several different parts. It has a shape, it has a being. And this shape, this being, can be held in the mind and compared with the shapes the essays of other books and given its own size and smallness by comparison with theirs.”
Again Woolf has hit the nail on the head and I couldn’t agree with her more. Although I would never post a review of a book without firstly reading it fully anyway (it’s one of the main pledges in my Book Review Pledge), I have, as I’ve mentioned before, seen myself forming opinions early on. I realise I shouldn’t be doing this at all, at least not before having a full and complete impression of the book first.
So sound advice from Virgina Woolf, and I thank her for spelling it out so clearly. She does go into the whole process of reading a lot deeper in her essay than I’ve shown (and a lot better than I could ever explain), so I do still urge you to go and read ‘The Love of Reading’ in full, for yourself. Aside from the excellent advice it offers, it’s also a bit of a celebration of reading and a real tribute to it, so I do think it’s well worth a look.
**This post has been specifically written for Sunday Salon participation**