Virginia Woolf’s writing, so often read for it’s feminism, it’s ingenuity, it’s poetry, is so often left unread for what could possibly be it’s most intellectually liberating aspect.
Virginia Woolf has been celebrated as one of the past century’s most independent minded authors. Her literary exploration of sexuality, feminism, and mental illness has solidified her reputation as one of literatures greatest advocates for understanding and acceptance. These things ensure that her writings enjoy a renaissance of renewed interest every so often, but her contribution to a much more subtle aspect of human individuality remains surprisingly unexplored.
Woolf’s belief in using a reading journal was not at all innovative. It was a common practice to keep a record of thoughts, copies of particularly beautiful passages, or to list books that have been read or need to be read. Many people would share such records of their daily readings in a journal passed between intimate friends. But Woolf practiced this hobby in a devoted manner, with such invigoration and persistence that these hurried scratchings in her personal notebooks were often developed into full fledged essays and articles which she published in magazines of her time. Two volumes of the most inspiring of these essays were published during her life.
Not merely a hobby or intellectual past time, Woolf wrote passionately on the importance of all readers to follow suit. In her introduction to a collection of these essays she begins with a statement regarding the “Common Reader.” This common reader is not highly educated, nor is he a critic. He reads for enjoyment. Rather than denouncing this, as many scholars even today would, she goes on to argue that this common reader is perhaps an even more accurate critic of literature than the scholar or professional critic. Inspired in this thought by Dr. Johnson, she explains her purpose in publishing her own thoughts as a “common reader.”
In her second series of The Common Reader, Woolf includes an essay “How Should One Read a Book?” Woolf seems to have become more convinced of the power and individualization of reading and thinking about your own thoughts, without consulting a higher authority. In this essay, read at a school, Woolf presents what I believe to be her most innovative and socially impactful concept.
“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 upon 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 conventions — there we have none.”
Woolf recognizes each individual’s right to create their own thoughts on what they read, a thought that is still struggling to be implemented in colleges, not to mention public schools, across the country. The concept of a free mind, a multitude of opinion, each valid and correct in it’s own sense, scares the average person. The thought of a world of no absolutes, no constants, can be unnerving. But the weightless freedom of believing in contradicting truths, simultaneously true, yet seemingly opposing, not only acknowledges the personal truths of the soul, but allows us to think and process on a level more advanced.
I imagine these multi faceted layers of truth to manifest in a way similar to that of a two-dimensional drawing transforming to a three-dimensional piece art. Multiple opinions, which seemed separate and disjointed at first, come together to form a more complete picture of our understanding.
But what of the common reader? Virginia Woolf not only encourages the common reader to write and share their own readings, but she does this herself, setting an ideal example to follow and encourage others to follow her. Not explicitly expressed by Woolf, but through these ideals and her implicit themes of her writing, I believe lies the beauty of this theory.
Woolf championed the equality of women, questioned the concept of social class, and the respect of mental illness, and accomplishes this with a constant flow of stream of consciousness. Beautiful and powerful in itself as a supporting construct to her works, it also demonstrates a subtle declaration of the right of the self to be recognized and shared without restraint, as her characters are expressed on the page. These inner monologues are what make her characters vivid, believable, and emotional. They are what makes her writing have weight, purpose and substance. Without these windows into the very souls of her characters, her messages would have the impact of a feather against stone. We would see a character, not a living breathing being which we can identify with, which we can see ourselves in.
We are not able to respect what we do not understand. Accept, perhaps, but not value, not honor. We can respect the desperation, the depression, even the suppression and confusion of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway, because we have connected with them. In this respect, Woolf is a champion of the minds, the essence of a human being. She is not a respecter of persons, she sees the value in the commoner and the scholar. She even, perhaps, values that of a commoner even more, being more true to himself, and not the learnings he was given from another man, tainting his own free will.
What Woolf has done for feminism and mental health is not to be undermined. Where we are today is because of advocates like her. I believe the next path to extend beyond mere acceptance of groups, of women, of the ill, of the races, but to the individual. In our culture the individual is often raised on a pedestal. There is a plague of narcissism placing the individual of your own self above all others. But this belief places all individuals on the same level, allows them to exist equally, all at once, in one chaotic, symphony. Each voice an instrument, in their own key, playing their own melody, each distinctly clear, and the universe hears perfect harmony.