How Should One Read a Book?

Artwork by Marion Deuchars

We asked LKP staff to share a favourite quote from the book or an idea that resonated with them after reading Woolf’s essay, How Should One Read a Book?, published as a standalone volume for the first time, with an introduction and afterword by Sheila Heti.

 

Sophie Schrey, Head of Children’s Books

My favourite bit of advice is from Virginia’s idea of banishing preconceptions when we read, and trying to ‘become’ the author, rather than dictating to ‘him’ (or her…!).  (pp25-26): ‘Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back…you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then 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…’

What a wonderful idea to transport inside the head of a writer and experience the words alongside them, as they fall off the pen. If I could become just one author, it would have to be Hilary Mantel. I imagine her mind is a magical place to be.

The book I’m currently reading is Supper Club by Lara Williams. It’s such a rich, delicious and powerful read. I’m quite literally gobbling my way through it.

 

Adrian Greenwood, Sales Director

I loved the book, and Sheila’s introduction and afterword really help to put the essay into context. The discussion around shape really resonated with me as I often look at my bookshelves and I can remember when I read a particular book and what was happening in my life at the time; just by looking at the spine of the book I am taken back to that time. After reading the book I went back to my shelves and have started reading Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment again.

The first time I read it was in the summer holidays during my A levels. I was working in a factory in Portslade (outside Brighton) and the journey took 1.5 hours on the bus each day. I read the book over a two week period and I would sit in the park reading during lunch as well. It is a book that I have re-read a number of times, but each time I am always taken back to that two-week period in 1989. It is my favourite book and I always get something new and different out of it, but in the background is always Portslade! Virginia Woolf perfectly describes that process and feeling.

 

Alex Coumbis, Publicity Manager

The notion that struck me is what Virginia Woolf describes as the process of reading a novel ‘To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you.’

I’m currently reading and thoroughly enjoying The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante.

 

Rachel Price, Publicity and Marketing Intern

The part of Woolf’s essay which struck me the most was her description of how we should approach a book without prejudice, without preconceptions in order to fully appreciate its author and its story. The idea that books can take you to a different world is one which is everywhere, yet Woolf distils the significance and magic of the experience into a few pages. Her understanding of the need for readers of all sorts leads you to conclude that there is no room for snobbery when reading; each reader and the books they love inhabit different worlds, and our world needs more readers who are willing to explore outside of their own experiences. In a time of great turmoil I think that this is something we should all be thinking about – read books that challenge you, that make you see things from a different view. Just because it isn’t your lived experience it doesn’t make these stories less valid or of interest, it makes them more important than ever.

At the moment I’m reading Real Men Knit, which is a recent Own Voices romance novel. I’ve been trying to read more Own Voices romance as the characters are so well written and it’s so rewarding to see strong women of colour as their own heroines and breaking stereotypes! I think that when Woolf asks us to open our minds to let in new ideas and views she touches on the power of books as agents of change, change which I’m excited to read about.

 

Elen Jones, Editorial Director

A lot has changed since Woolf wrote How Should One Read a Book? and a lot has changed since we decided to publish it, but it feels like it could have been written yesterday in response to what we’re living through now, and I think I understand Woolf’s meaning a bit better because of it. I think the main reason Woolf wants to empower the reader is that if we don’t decide for ourselves what’s good, what’s not, whose opinions, experiences and stories matter, then someone else will decide for us; Sheila also picks up on this in her brilliant introduction. We have the power to choose whose voices get heard, and we should take that responsibility seriously ‘and if by our means books were to become stronger, richer and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.’

I have a few books on the go at the moment, but I’m really absorbed in The Body Keeps the Score, it’s utterly fascinating how the brain and body respond to trauma. I’m also reading about Lee Krasner, who was so much more than just Jackson Pollock’s wife.

 

Aliona Ladus, Rights Manager

Having Virginia Woolf’s essay on my desk sparkled a lot of humorous comments in my household. The paradox of reading a book on the ways to do it – is one supposed to read the book twice, once to learn how and second time to read it properly? If you manage to read the book the first time, did you need to read it? The conversations lead to the conclusion that it is important to pose this question more often, perhaps every time you pick up a book.

Currently, I am reading the draft novel of my inspiring friend Cassandra Campbell-Kemp, called Cauliflowers through the cat flap and other tales from a solitary lockdown. I always feel nervous about stepping into someone’s stream of consciousness, so Sheila Heti’s note in ‘Other Readers’ struck a chord with me: ‘I never feel more valuable as a reader than when I am reading a friend’s draft. And it’s a special pleasure to know that my reading can change a book, not only that a book can change me.’ It is an empowering phrase that makes me enjoy the reading of this insightful and hilarious novel, let it affect me, while allowing my thoughts to take shape of constructive feedback without too much trepidation.

 

Megan Flint, Publicity Executive

My favourite piece of advice from the essay was this ‘Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that have perished. But if you give yourself up to the delight of rubbish-reading you will be surprised, indeed you will be overcome, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to moulder.’

I’m currently reading The Overstory by Richard Powers, a beautiful book about the natural world and how trees connect a group of disparate strangers. Described as an ‘eco-novel,’ this book has taught me so much about trees and the urgency with which we need to protect the environment. The characters and their stories read almost like a fairy tale – it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before!

 

Rosie Henry, Digital Marketing Manager

What a beautiful little book. My favourite quote from from the essay is, ‘Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticise at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read.’

My thoughts on how one should read a book, is to read it in the bath – relaxed, zen and full of bubbles!

I’m currently reading (in the bath of course) The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman.

 

Clare Double, Senior Editor

Virginia Woolf talks of the pleasure of finding oneself in a different world (geographically, historically or both) when we move, say, from Daniel Defoe to Jane Austen. I am reading Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor, a brilliant evocation of the world of Victorian theatre and an absorbing escape from lockdown restrictions. It features Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, as well as the celebrated actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, and one of its joys is the shabby rat-infested Lyceum Theatre, a character in itself (the resident rat-catching cats are almost as bad as the rodents). O’Connor draws on the events of Bram Stoker’s life to suggest how his famous novel may have taken root in his experiences at the theatre. He takes us, in more than one sense, behind the scenes of Bram Stoker’s world. So Shadowplay is also about how a person becomes a novelist; how the secret self turns to outward expression, observer becomes recorder.

Virginia Woolf says that ‘words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing’, but a great writer can make this complicated process effortless for the reader. The words settle into walls, red seats in a theatre or cobwebs backstage; the reading feels like listening. How should one read a book? From the best seat in the house.

 

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