Virginia Woolf

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.”


Here, Schwarz excerpts Woolf’s essay “Hours in a Library”:

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 passionatelym Schwarz notes, 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. (more…)

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In Praise of Grace Paley

The iconic short story writer and essayist Grace Paley died yesterday at her home in Vermont. I have long been an admirer of her work, and have been such a disciple that my students over the years have probably become bored with the refrain, “If you want to learn how to write dialogue, read Grace Paley!”

I first read Paley in 1993, while living alone in a miserable little duplex in Knoxville, TN. I’d just accepted a job as a copywriter at an ad agency. I remember being snowed in during my first scheduled week of work, reading Paley on a set of Salvation Army sofa cushions I’d arranged on the floor as a bed. The crazy neighbors were screaming at each other, the snow was coming down, and I was bundled up in scarf, hat, and layers of sweats because I couldn’t afford to run the steam heat. That’s where I met Paley, in Little Disturbances of Man. I was mesmerized. Reading Paley was what taught me to write short stories. More on Paley in coming days…

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