How to Read a Book, According to Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf in 1929.
Virginia Woolf in 1929. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In addition to writing celebrated novels like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf was also a prolific writer of essays on everything from her own life to her feelings about other writers. Among these many musings is an essay called “How Should One Read a Book?”

Woolf begins by explaining why it’s titled “How Should One Read a Book?” and not “How One Should Read a Book.” In short, there’s no single answer to the question. “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,” she says [PDF].

That said, she does have some ideas. For one, Woolf thinks you should try to set aside your expectations for a book before you open it, and don’t let knee-jerk judgments interrupt your reading experience. Instead, you should “try to become” the author. “If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first,” she writes, “you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read.”

To help you accomplish this, Woolf suggests writing something yourself: “to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words.” After you’ve struggled to capture a simple scene or event in words, you can “turn from your blurred and littered pages to the opening pages of some great novelist,” Woolf writes. “Now you will be better able to appreciate their mastery.”

As Maria Popova explains on her blog Brain Pickings, Woolf isn’t against judging what you’ve read—she acknowledges that forming opinions about a book is a vital part of the process. But she recommends taking a break after you finish the last page to let the ideas solidify in your subconscious mind before reflecting on them. “Walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep,” Woolf writes. After that, the book as a whole will make more sense, and you’ll be able to compare it to others.

Woolf also reveals conflicted feelings about letting all readers openly judge what they’ve read, rather than leaving such work to expert critics. But she admits that it’s impossible for readers to curb their reactions. “There is always a demon in us who whispers, ‘I hate, I love,’ and we cannot silence him,” she explains. What we can do is read so much and so widely that our critical “demon” develops good taste.

In the end, Woolf neutralizes everything she’s expressed thus far by introducing the possibility that the chief purpose of reading a book is just to enjoy it. “Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them?” she asks.

To anyone familiar with Woolf and her work, it’s probably not surprising that she’d offer such inconclusive advice on reading. After all, she herself never thought much of rigid rules—in writing or anything else.

[h/t Brain Pickings]