I am the Common Reader: Virginia Woolf on pleasure, reading, & the survival of literature
Despite her knowledge of Greek and her voracious reading of the classics, Virginia Woolf considered herself a self-taught reader. As a woman, she had been denied the illustrious Oxford education that the men in her family enjoyed. As it turns out, her lack of affectation, her insistence on taking pleasure in reading, is what makes her essays on literature so lucid, smart, and delicious to read.
Reviewing The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 6: 1933-1941, for the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz notes that, despite Woolf’s place in “the highest stratum of the English intellectual aristocracy,” her essays were written not for the academic but for the common reader, the category in which she rather modestly placed herself. The common reader, she posited, “reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.”
A reader must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill…the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading. The true reader is a man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative, to whom eating is more the nature of brisk exercise in the open wire than of a sheltered study.
For all of her wealth and status–the very condition that allowed her the coveted room of one’s own–Woolf also believed passionately in the democracy of reading, as evidenced in her essay “The Leaning Tower.”
Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground.
Woolf’s prescription for the survival of literature, which might have ruffled feathers in her time, is no less meaningful today. Literature will survive, she wrote,
if commoners and outsiders like ourselves make that country our own country…teach ourselves how to read and how to write, how to preserve and how to create.
Many critics may scoff at just how much reading has become a common pursuit. The prevalence of Wimpy Kid books, vampire series, and crime thrillers might make them shudder. Perhaps this isn’t what Woolf had in mind when she called upon the common reader to ensure the survival of literature. I imagine she pictured schoolgirls in smart uniforms reading Henry James and William Thackeray while sipping tea and nibbling crumpets; the vision of teens in hoodies devouring Stephanie Meyer books might very well have appalled her. But Woolf also wrote that the common reader is, above all, “guided by an instinct to create for himself.” And books that engage the reader, no matter the genre, do just that.
My eight-year-old can’t get through ten pages of Big Nate without throwing the book aside, declaring, “This is making me want to write a comic book!” and going off in search of pencil and paper. Meander through any pile of papers and books in our house (and there are many), and you’re likely to find a comic written and illustrated by my son, alongside my many notebooks filled with scraps of stories and novels. Even as an adult, one of the greatest pleasures I take in reading is the way it inspires me to create something. Joan Didion, John Berger, Lars Gustafsson, Jorge Luis Borges, Grace Paley, Paul Auster, and Graham Greene, among others, are my Big Nate. I read a few chapters–sometimes, just a few sentences–and find that I’m itching to write.
I began, of course, as a far more common reader than Woolf and her ilk, educated as I was in Alabama evangelical schools and fed a lowbrow but addicting diet of Bible stories, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and Uncle Remus Bedtime Stories. As a child, I didn’t realize there was much else out there. But one book led to another, and another, and so on, and by the time I was in middle school I knew I would become a writer.
I am the common reader; so is my son; so are you. We all are beneficiaries of a vision that took root sometime in the last two centuries–that books and reading should be a common pursuit, a guiding pleasure principle for all of us.
Michelle Richmond is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog, the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, and the novels Dream of the Blue Room and No One You Know. Her new novel will be published by Bantam in Feb. 2014.
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