Virginia Woolf on Why We Read and What Great Works of Art Have in Common
By Maria Popova
Patti Smith listed among her criteria for a literary masterpiece that it must leave one so enchanted as to feel “immediately obliged to reread it.” Susan Sontag considered rereading an act of rebirth. I attest to this readily with my habit of rereading The Little Prince once a year every year, each time finding in it new revelations of meaning, new existential salve for whatever is ailing my life at that particular moment. We reread beloved books because on some level we recognize the temporality of all experience and the temporariness of the confluence of states and circumstances comprising the self at any given moment — we recognize that next year’s self will outgrow last year’s self and move on to a whole new set of challenges, hopes, and priorities, becoming, in some essential sense, a whole new self.
Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was only twenty-one when she recorded this recognition with uncommon lucidity of mind and luminosity of language.
In the summer of 1903, Woolf took two months’ respite from London’s bustle in the blue-green spaciousness of the English countryside, enjoying “a very free out of door life” and reading voraciously. “I read more during these 8 weeks in the country than in six London months perhaps.” Under the twin luxuries of time for reading and space for reflection, she arrived at a revelatory new understanding of why it is we read at all — what books do for the human spirit, how they furnish what Iris Murdoch would call “an occasion for unselfing,” and how they can perform the astonishing acrobatics of arising from one consciousness and reaching another — thousands, millions of others, across time and space — on such an intimate level, and in the process interleaving those myriad different consciousnesses into a shared wilderness of experience.
On the first of July, she writes in her diary:
I read a great deal… Besides this I write… But the books are the things that I enjoy — on the whole — most. I feel sometimes for hours together as though the physical stuff of my brain were expanding, larger & larger, throbbing quicker & quicker with new blood — & there is no more delicious sensation than this. I read some history: it is suddenly all alive, branching forwards & backwards & connected with every kind of thing that seemed entirely remote before. I seem to feel Napoleons influence on our quiet evening in the garden for instance — I think I see for a moment how our minds are all threaded together — how any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.
Later in life, Woolf would return to this realization in her exquisite account of the epiphany in which she understood what it means to be an artist, writing:
Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.
And yet, even at twenty-one, she understood how momentary these glimpses of elemental truth are — how easily this sense of inter-belonging, this thing-itselfness of being, slips out of our grasp. She continues the same 1903 diary entry with the swift pivot — as swift as the mind’s — from this awareness that “all the world is mind” to the habitual loss of perspective as the cotton wool drops over our eyes and unworlds us once more:
Then I read a poem say — & the same thing is repeated. I feel as though I had grasped the central meaning of the world, & all these poets & historians & philosophers were only following out paths branching from that centre in which I stand. And then — some speck of dust gets into my machine I suppose, & the whole thing goes wrong again.
More than a decade later, Woolf refined the sentiment in one of the extraordinary essays she composed during her quarter century as a critic for the Times Literary Supplement, newly collected in Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read (public library) — a book which, had I not been too consumed by rereading beloved books of yore to realize its publication, I would have ardently included among my favorite books of 2019.
Like the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, whose contemplative criticism uses books less as specimens for review than as springboards for soaring meditations on life and art, Woolf treats each book she reviews as a stone dropped from the coat-pocket into the Ouse of life, observing first its essential stoneness of form and then the widening circles of understanding rippling into the river of consciousness. Into the first essay from the collection, writing about Charlotte Brontë’s novels, Woolf nestles this exquisite insight into what makes a great work of art — the kind to which we keep returning again and again:
There is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season. To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.
Complement with Rebecca Solnit on why we read, André Gide on the five elements of a great work of art, and the young poet May Sarton’s arresting account of meeting Woolf, then revisit Woolf’s own arresting account of a total solar eclipse and her abiding insight into illness, love, gender, writing and self-doubt, and the relationship between loneliness and creativity.
Published January 23, 2020