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How Should One Read a Book?

作者:Virginia…    文章来源:网络    更新时间:2007/7/1


 How Should One Read a Book?
                                  by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)   from The Second Common Reader

Born in England, Virginia Woolf was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, a well-known scholar. She was educated primarily at home and attributed her love of reading to the early and complete access she was given to her father’s library. With her husband, Leonard Woolf, she founded the Hogarth Press and became known as member of the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals, which included economist John Maynard Keynes, biographer Lytton Strachey, novelist E. M. Forster, and art historian Clive Bell. Although she was a central figure in London literary life, Woolf often saw herself as isolated from the mains stream because she was a woman. Woolf is best known for her experimental, modernist novels, including Mrs. Dalloway(1925) and To the Lighthouse(1927) which are widely appreciated for her breakthrough into a new mode and technique--the stream of consciousness. In her diary and critical essays she has much to say about women and fiction. Her 1929 book A Room of One’s Own documents her desire for women to take their rightful place in literary history and as an essayist she has occupied a high place in 20th century literature. The common Reader (1925 first series; 1932 second series) has acquired classic status. She also wrote short stories and biographies. “Professions for Women”  taken from The collected Essays Vol 2. is originally a paper Woolf read to the Women’s Service League, an organization for professional women in London. 

     In the first place, I want to emphasize the note of interrogation at the end of my title. Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you. 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. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place on what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventionsthere we have none.

     But to enjoy freedom, if the platitude is pardonable, we have of course to control ourselves. We must not squander our powers, helplessly and ignorantly, squirting half the house in order to water a single rose-bush; we must train them, exactly and powerfully, here on the very spot. This, it may be, is one of the first difficulties that faces us in a library. What is “the very spot”? There may well seem to be nothing but a conglomeration and huddle of confusion. Poems and novels, histories and memoirs, dictionaries and blue-books; books written in all languages by men and women of all tempers, races, and ages jostle each other on the shelf. And outside the donkey brays, the women gossip at the pump, the colts gallop across the fields. Where are we to begin? How are we to bring order into this multitudinous chaos and get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read?

     It is simple enough to say that since books have classes--fiction, biography, poetry--we should separate them and take from each what it is right that each should give us. Yet few people ask from books what books can give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, the signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite. The thirty-two chapters of a novelif we consider how to read a novel first--are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing. Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on youhow at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision; an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.

     But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions. Some must be subdued; others emphasized; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself. Then turn from your blurred and littered pages to the opening pages of some great novelistDefoe, Jane Austen, or Hardy. Now you will be better able to appreciate their mastery. It is not merely that we are in the  presence of a different personDefoe, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardybut that we are living in a different world. Here, in Robinson Crusoe, we are trudging a plain high road; one thing happens after another; the fact and the order of the fact is enough. But if the open air and adventure mean everything to Defoe they mean nothing to Jane Austen. Hers is the drawing-room, and people talking, and by the many  mirrors of their talk revealing their characters. And if, when we have accustomed ourselves to the drawing-room and its reflections, we turn to Hardy, we are once more spun around. The other side of the mind is now exposedthe dark side that comes uppermost in solitude, not the light side that shows in company. Our relations are not towards people, but towards Nature and destiny. Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to anotherfrom Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacockto Trollope, from Scott to Meredithis to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that. To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great finesse of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelistthe great artistgives you. 

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     “We have only to compare”with those words the cat is out of the bag, and the true complexity of reading  is admitted. The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases. Details now fit themselves into their places. We see the shape from start to finish; it is a barn, a pig-sty, or a cathedral. Now then we can compare book with book as we compare building with building. But this act of comparison means that our attitude has changed; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe. Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy; are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease? Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind. There they hang in the mind the shapes of the books we have read solidified by the judgments we have passed on themRobinson Crusoe, Emma, The Return of the Native. Compare the novels with theseeven the latest and least of novels has a right to be judged with the best. And so with poetrywhen the intoxication of rhythm has died down and the splendour of words has faded a visionary shape will return to us and this must be compared with Lear, with Phedre,with The Prelude; or if not with these, with whatever is the best or seems to us to be the best in its own kind. And we may be sure that the newness of new poetry and fiction is its most superficial quality and that we have only to alter slightly, not to recast, the standards by which we have judged the old.

     It would be foolish, then, to pretend that the second part of reading, to judge, to compare, is as simple as the firstto open the mind wide to the fast flocking of innumerable impressions. To continue reading without the book before you, To hold one shadow-shape against another, to have read widely enough and with enough understanding to make such comparisons alive and illuminatingthat is difficult; it is still more difficult to press further and to say, “Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails; here it succeeds; this is bad; that is good.” To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive any one mind sufficiently endowed; impossible for the most self-confident to find more than the seeds of such powers in himself. Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics, the gowned and furred authorities of the library, to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible! We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our own identity as we read. But we know that we cannot sympathise wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, “I hate, I love,” and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable. And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminating; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it. But as time goes on perhaps we can train our taste; perhaps we can make it submit to some control. When it has fed greedily and lavishly upon books of all sortspoetry, fiction, history, biographyand has stopped reading and looked for long spaces upon the variety, the incongruity of the living world, we shall find that it is changing a little; it is not so greedy, it is more reflective. It will begin to bring us not merely judgments on particular books, but it will tell us that there is a quality common to certain books. Listen, it will say, what shall we call this? And it will read us perhaps Lear and then perhaps Agamenon in order to bring out that common quality. Thus, with our taste to guide us, we shall venture beyond the particular book in search of qualities that group books together; we shall give them names and thus frame a rule that brings order into our perceptions. We shall gain a further and a rarer pleasure from that discrimination. But as a rule only lives when it is perpetually broken by contact with the books themselvesnothing is easier and more stultifying than to make rules which exist out touch with facts, in a vacuumnow at least, in order to steady ourselves in this difficult attempt, it may be well to turn to the very rare writers who are able to enlighten us upon literature as an art. Coleridge and Dryden and Johnson, in their considered criticism, the poets and novelists themselves in their considered sayings are often surprisingly relevant; they light up and solidity the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds. But they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.

     If this is so, if to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment, you may perhaps, conclude that literature is a very complex art and that it is unlikely that we shall be able, even after a lifetime of reading, to make any valuable contribution to its criticism. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance; when books pass in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot and may well be pardoned if he mistakes rabbits for tigers, eagles for bar-door fowls, or misses altogether and wastes his shot upon some peaceful sow grazing in a further field. If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

     Yet who reads to bring about an end however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewardstheir crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marblethe Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

Questions for Comprehension and Consideration:

1. The title of the essay gives a sense of offering advice on reading and the author begins her essay by saying “In the first place, I want to emphasize the note of interrogation at the end of my title.” Why does the author start her essay in this way and what does she really want to point out in her first paragraph which serves as her starting point when she offers ideas and suggestions on reading.

2. How do you understand the author’s idea of  “Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice” in paragraph 3. How does your reading experience agree or disagree with the author’s advice?

3. Virginia Woolf says  “the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write;” and she also gives an example to support it. What do you think of the example? Have you ever had such experience of “experimenting with dangers and difficulties of words” ? If you have how do you comment your experience?

4. The author mentions three writers in paragraph 4 and points out that although they depict things totally different they share one same important element. What is it? Read at least one novel of each writer mentioned and try to understand the different worlds the authors created and see whether you agree to the comment Virginia Woolf made or not.

5. What is the true complexity of reading and what are the reading processes Virginia Woolf depicts? How do the processes agree or disagree to your reading experience?

6. In the difficult process of reading the author advises us to read some very rare writers who are able to enlighten us upon literature of art. To what extent and on what circumstance they are able to help us?

7. In what sense does Virginia Woolf think that common readers have responsibilities and importance in raising the standards and the judgment of reading?

8. How do you feel the author’s rhetoric question “Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and is not this (reading) among them”? Write a passage with concrete examples to show your true understanding of it.

 the battle of Waterloo  Waterloo is a town in Belgium, the place where Napoleon Bonaparte(17691821) and his army was totally defeated.

 Thomas Love Peacock (1785--1866)British novelist and poet.

 Anthony Trollope (181582), British novelist.

 George Meredith(1828--1909)British novelist and poet.


Phedre  French tragic poet Jean Racine’s(16391699) works.

 The Prelude  British poet William Wordsworth’s(17701850) long poem.

Agamenon  The ancient Greece great tragic poet Aischulos’(520 BC456BC) works.

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge(17721834)  British romantic poet.

 John Dryden(16311700)  British poet and critic.

Samuel Johnson(17091784)  British writer.

Peter  one of the twelve disciple of Jesus Christ.

On Happiness in Marriage
I want a wife
Professions for Women
My Father, My Son, My Self

How Should One Read a Book?:https://www.ryedu.net/syy/yywh/200707/3113.html
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