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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Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt, and other books on grief

I first came across the work of Roger Rosenblatt at a local bookstore, where the paperback of his memoir, Making Toast, was on display on the front table. When Rosenblatt’s 38-year-old daughter died suddenly of a heart defect no one knew she had, he and his wife Ginny moved in with their widowed son-in-law to care for their three small grandchildren. Making Toast is a beautiful and deeply painful book, shot through with the author’s raw grief. Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats, takes up where Making Toast left off. At the time of its writing, Rosenblatt’s grief has not abated. If anything, it has grown sharper. This book, like the one before it, is stunning. It is associative, like the best long-form essays, meandering from subject to subject, from esoteric fact to watery remembrance.

The book is shot through with meditations on water, solitude, Quogue, and kayaking, as well as surprising revelations (Rosenblatt interviewed several presidents; among them was Nixon, who remarked that Rosenblatt’s tape recorder was “better” than the old tape recorders).

My first thought upon reading this book was that it is the kind of book I would like to have written. But then I realized I was mistaken. Kayak Morning, like Making Toast before it, draws its weight and its beauty, its utterly crystallized emotions and startling sensitivity, from grief. I would like to have the talent to write this book, but I would not like to have the experience that made this book possible. The death of Rosenblatt’s daughter is on every page, it colors everything. His daughter died before him, his daughter whom he remembers with such specificity as his little girl, and he cannot get over it. What father could? What parent could? The book comes from a place no parent wants to go.

In this way it reminds me of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Blue Nights, which addresses, among other things, the unexpected death of Didion’s adult daughter, follows the narrative thread of The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about the year following the death of Didion’s husband. Both of these two Didion books are incredibly good, but The Year of Magical Thinking is, in my mind, the more masterful one. In Blue Nights, Didion is doing battle with time, with the stark realities of her own aging body and her aging mind; she worries, in fact, that she no longer possesses the powers of narrative that she once had. Beyond that, however, Blue Nights, beautiful as it is, is a book without hope. At the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, her daughter is still alive; at the beginning of Blue Nights, she is not.

Didion’s approach to the narrative of grief is perhaps the more obviously intellectual, Rosenblatt’s the more dreamy. Both are deeply felt, unforgettable. Didion writes Blue Nights, it seems, in the depths of grief and in the absence of hope, while Rosenblatt writes Kayak Morning in the depths of grief but the presence of hope; he has his wife, his two sons. More important, perhaps, is the fact that he still has his daughter’s children, his grandchildren, whom he cares for every day. During the school year he and his wife live in a single room of their son-in-law’s house. He writes in this room while the children are in school, and when they are not, they are always welcome to pile in and pile on. One does not get the sense that Rosenblatt will outlive his grief; and yet, his book’s two-word title includes the word Morning, a sharp contrast to Didion’s two-word title, which includes the word Night.


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Pure by Julianna Baggott

Pure, by Julianna Baggott

A powerful post-apocalyptic novel by the author of more than a dozen books for children and adults. In the Dome live the Pures, persons who escaped the Detonations that destroyed most of Earth. Outside live the wretches, the ravaged survivors whose bodies fused with objects, animals, and each other during the blast. The wretches have been taught the the Dome watches over them benevolently, and that its residents will one day come to save them, while the Pures believe they survived because they are better, kinder, smarter human beings. Those on the outside, they are taught, did not deserve the protection of the Dome. When one doubting Pure meets up with two courageous outsiders, the truth of how the Detonations happened, and why, begins to come to light. This is strange, dark, riveting storytelling, a fantasy world shot through with the very real horrors of nuclear war; echoes of Hiroshima are eerily present in the devastated landscape and ravaged bodies of the survivors.

A longing for lost mothers is woven beautifully throughout the book; both inside and outside the Dome, children remember their mothers from the Before. In a wild take on suburbia, mothers from the Meltlands (so named because of the plastic play structures that survived the Detonations and now dot the landscape like colorful, out-of-place sculptures) have formed a fierce collective, hell-bent on saving their deformed children from further harm.

PURE is a wild, terrifying, and utterly satisfying ride, a much-needed feminist voice in the highly masculinized genre of post-apocalypse fiction.

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Visit Julianna Baggott’s website

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Little Children, by Tom Perotta

It took me a long time to get around to reading this book.  I kept hearing the title, Little Children, bandied about, and it kept getting great reviews, but it was the title that turned me off. I knew there was a pedophile in the book; that knowledge, combined with the title, convinced me it wasn’t a book I wanted to read. (Writers: scroll down for notes on point of view.)

A friend whose opinion I trust recently assured me, “No, it’s really not about that at all.” So I bought the book, and I quickly realized that the title refers to a passage early in the novel, in which Perotta notes that people grow up, get jobs, get married, go to the playground, and fall in line like little children.

While a pedophile does appear sporadically in the book, the role he plays is that of the town bogeyman. We don’t end up spending a lot of time with him. He is there, instead, to reveal the character of Stonewood Heights–a town full of gossipy soccer moms and dysfunctional dads, where the sudden presence of a convicted sex offender results in all sorts of fear and speculation. Which is not to say that the bad guy is let off easily; he is revealed as a fairly irredeemable character, made no less sympathetic by the town’s feverish outcry against him. This is a novel about the suburbs, about messed-up adult relationships, and about mob mentality. Perotta never forces us to suffer through any of the things you might think he’s going to force you to suffer through, given the press about the book, not to mention the cover copy.

The center of the book is a 30-year-old housewife who can’t really believe she’s a housewife, and a good-looking stay-at-home dad who can’t seem to get his life moving. After the two end up in the sheets,  all sorts of bliss and misery ensues.

I recommend Little Children for a fun, engaging, subtly disturbing read.

I also recommend it for any aspiring novelist who is using the third person point of view. Perrotta moves in and out of the minds of many characters in the book, but he does so chapter by chapter; the feeling is less one of omniscience than of a carefully constructed third person that stays very close to the primary characters’ perspectives, one at a time, without the moments of authorial intrusion that characterize the omniscient point of view. I like to think of this technique as the roving third person (as opposed to third person limited, which tends to focus on a single character.) Writing students: If you’re working in third person, try going through this novel chapter by chapter and identifying when the shifts in point of view take place, and how the author handles them.

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