On "How Should One Read a Book?"

In “How One Should Read a Book” Virginia Wolf talks about how she views reading a book as a personal experience for everyone. She views reading as a thing of liberty and freedom, where you can escape and not be bothered by what everyone else thinks. I think Woolf’s feelings about reading influenced her writing: she wrote whatever she wanted and never censored her thoughts. She also wants to change the way we see certain literature: we see fiction as mere amusement and poetry as false. She describes poetry and biography extensively and uses examples from other writers. This reading is teaching us, what Woolf thinks, is the proper way to read a book. But she believes that even if we read something a hundred times we will never be able to truly criticize or understand it, because literature is so deep and profound.

In the first paragraph Woolf says, “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.” I think she is trying to say that no one views and imagines a book the same way. We don’t even imagine a book the way the writer intended us to. So maybe in a way we are also the writers since we come up with our own conclusions. It’s like when a book becomes a movie: the director shows the way that he viewed the book, he may even change certain events and characters for the movie. The writer may argue against this but they can do nothing about it, since the director has made it his own. She also argues that one cannot truly say that one book is better than another. “Romeo and Juliet” may be viewed as one of the greatest books of all time, but to whom? We all see it a certain way and Shakespeare certainly isn’t around to discuss it with us.

I also found it ironic that Woolf is saying that we shouldn’t be told how to read a book since it takes away our freedom, but later on she is telling us how we should read a book. She tells us not to dictate the author but to try and become him. I think she is trying to say that we shouldn’t say, “Why would the character do that? I would’ve made them do so and so.” We should respect the author’s choice and try to understand why they wrote that. She also thinks that takes away from us truly enjoying the novel. She thinks that when we read we are in a different world, and when we read we shouldn’t let things from our current world influence the way we are seeing the book. It also seems like Woolf is questioning the intelligence of the readers. She seems to believe that one must be an intellectual and college-educated person in order to fully appreciate a book. I don’t agree with her, if a five-year old can read ,they can enjoy and appreciate a book. Maybe even more so than an adult, since their imagination is less limited.

I think the end of the essay shows how much Virginia Woolf loved and valued reading. She looks at it as a kind of holy thing that will get you into Heaven. She thinks that the people with books under their arms will get into Heaven, before the lawyers and the statesmen. She thinks that we not only read for pleasure but because it is a good thing to do. Woolf is right, I don’t think she’s right about reading getting us into Heaven, but about it being a good thing to do. Reading strengthens and influences the mind.--Baha Awadallah