We are reading Hermione Lee's biography, Virginia Woolf. I loved the idea of a chapter on reading (chapter 23, called "Reading") , enjoyed and in many ways agreed with Ellen about it, and yet found myself ultimately disappointed, despite some of the small gems that emerged. This is a chapter as much about writing as reading, about reading as the prelude to or part of the dance with writing. Of course, reading is inevitably always that (except for the rare reader who never writes) but I suppose I had hoped for a chapter that dealt wholly with Woolf as reader and what she read. After all, the book as whole is about the writer.
I say this because you can learn (or end up against a wall of mystery which is informative in its own way) about a person from the books they return to: the touchstone books. I was aware of this in the two figures I've done some intense biographical research on, Dorothy Day and Bonhoeffer. I'll stick to Day in this instance. In reading her journals, which span 50 years, I learned that Day was a great, avid reader. She loved and learned from books and like Woolf and other readers she had a strong emotional response to books: they were real to her. Over and over she returned to certain books: Queechy by Susan Warner (unreadable to us but she loved it), The Brother's Karamazov (she had quotes by memory and leaned into them deeply), even Austen, especially, perhaps, Mansfield Park. These books wove themselves into her soul, along with others. They may not all be to our taste but that only works to reinforce the alterity of other people from other times: they are not us. They receive books differently. We simply can't view them (narcissistically?) as mirrors of ourselves.
But Lee, frustratingly, never tells us what were Woolf's touchstone books. What books did she return to again and again over the course of her life? She must have had such books or, if not, isn't that striking, notable, worth a mention? But we get no such inventory. ... I am simply bemused that Lee doesn't cover this.
In any case, Lee makes the point that for Woolf books influenced her as much as relationships (of course, that cries out for her to tell us which books were lifelong friends, which fell away, which were passing infatuations etc...). We learn that reading is Woolf's life's pleasure and her life's work ... except when, on the last page of the chapter, it's not. But mostly, it's a "despotic" desire. Woolf reacts to books emotionally--they shock her, they arouse her emotions, make her feel. I know well the emotions a great book can elicit, but also wonder how this connects with Woolf's mental illness, if there is some sort of extra-acuteness in Woolf, but Lee doesn't comment.
I agreed strongly with Woolf's perception that in a book "we have to possess ... the whole" before we can grasp a single detail. Yes. Not that we can't grasp details as we go along on a first reading, but to really grasp a book, you do have to grasp the whole of it.
Woolf read widely and diversely, as many of us do, and liked to mix second rate with first rate literature, as it helped her understand the best literature and its context better. The second rate helped "fertilize" her mind for the "great." I also appreciated that she hated that coteries with power in the publishing and literary worlds pushed second rate books, the middlebrow, as better than they are: we see that often in our times, needless to say, and we hear people rave about truly mediocre books that are the "thing."
Reading can even be sexual for Woolf, and I agree with that. I also understood wanting a day perfectly fit together, like a cabinet with beautiful compartments, and her distress when her best writing time in the morning was interrupted--'wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone" or she had to use her best time to write books reviews to earn money. She could be describing my life: how to hang on to that prime writing time, when the brain is at its best, how to guard it? But this, of course, is about writing, not reading.
We learn that as a writer, she wants a fiction that moves faster than the Victorian novel, that is more fluid, impressionistic, a shower of atoms. We learn that when she writes, she wants "a wall for the book from oneself." Lee takes this to mean Woolf wanted to write not too autobiographically.
At the end of the chapter Lee talks about Woolf's belief that women read and write in a particular way about other women's lives. And Lee writes the cryptic last paragraph about Woolf having a moment of frustration with writing and by implication reading, what Lee calls a "moment of despair." I call the last paragraph a way to evade having to draw any conclusions or summation from a diffuse chapter that dances and weaves all too amorphously around Woolf's reading life.