Woolf’s Reading Notebooks

I mean no disrespect to Brenda Silver in saying that her guide, Virginia Woolf’s Reading Notebooks makes for pretty dull reading. How could it be otherwise? A book that summarizes over forty volumes of Woolf’s notes can only offer the barest indications of the books and subjects noted. For the book to be produced at a reasonable length, it had to be what it is: a dated list of the contents of each of the notebooks.

Having looked at the notebooks from the early 20s, when Woolf was writing Mrs. Dalloway, I marvel anew at her perseverance in dating these very sketchy and various volumes.

I wonder, too, how it might be possible to convey what makes them such amazing documents.

Woolf kept a diary. She also kept draft notebooks for her novels and the essays she wrote alongside them. The reading notebooks are a third kind of notebook, more casual than either of these. Volume 19 is a notebook with cardboard covers, reinforced inside and out on the spine with cloth. Two pairs of metal grommets on the front and back permit it to be bound with laces (and there is a very heavy shoelace attached here, though no longer binding the pages). Inside, are over 100 loose pages, each with two holes. This permitted Woolf to unbind pages from old notebooks and pull old notes as she was revising and expanding essays—for her Common Readers, say. As Silver points out, this can make dating notebooks extraordinarily difficult, as a single notebook (like notebook 26) may contain pages from 1919, 1920 or 21, 1926, 1928, 1935, and 1938.

And in these notebooks, you find Woolf at her most personal, her most uncertain. In the midst of notetaking on a critical book on the novel, she pauses: “(one feels out of one’s depth)”. Of Oedipus Coloneus, read in French, she writes “I did not much enjoy it & found the complexity of the plot annoying.”

It is so rare to hear Woolf speaking in this voice—the voice of a reader in the process of making a judgment. Equally rare, if less vivid, is the chance to leaf through the pages and see how she took notes, what quotations stood out for her. Just seeing that she used the left margin to note page numbers is of interest to me, and, in reading through the notebooks back in June, I found that I had some answers to the kinds of questions readers always want to ask writers—how do you take notes? what kind of pen do you use? when you’re working on a review, how much research do you do? what books influenced you most when writing this one?

Having perused a few of these volumes for my edition of Mrs. Dalloway, I remain grateful to Silver and staunch in my admiration for what she achieved, but I wish her book offered readers more of the romance of reading that I found while working with the actual documents in the Berg Collection.