Explain Woolf's final answer to the question she raises in the title "How Should One Read a Book?"


Virginia Woolf offers a variety of answers to her opening question, “How should one read a book?” First she urges us to have faith in our ability to read and form judgments. She knows it’s tempting to reach for the critics and hear what they have to say about a book. But she wants us to free ourselves from their authority.

So how do we start? The reader must also free herself from any preconceptions. Instead of rushing to judgment, we should read with an open mind by first trying to read with the author:

Try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice.

Be on the author’s side and read sympathetically so you can have the fullest experience of the reading. Another tip is that we should consider writing ourselves, to see how difficult it is to try to capture an experience in words. Once we have fumbled our way with scratching some words on the page, we can then compare our scratchings to the great masters and truly appreciate just how difficult the job of writing is.

What about those writers who are not “masters”? Should we bother reading them? Yes, Woolf urges us to read all kinds of literature, but we can read them in a different way. We can appreciate the rush of facts that books such as biographies and memoirs offer us, the various insights into different lives. Woolf captures this idea using the metaphor of a person standing out in a dark street, peering in someone’s home, catching glimpses through the various windows of different people with their different activities. These books provide different glimpses into different lives, and these fleeting moments that are offered to us may even inspire us to creative musings and writings.

But we cannot subsist on this kind of reading alone, which she eventually refers to as “rubbish reading.” This reading cannot satisfy like the profound visions that can be found, for example, in poetry. Woolf provides multiple examples of poems that can stir such lofty insights.

These comparisons bring her to her final answer to the question “How should one read a book.” The first step is what she already has discussed, to be on the author’s side and accept the multitude of impressions without judgment. But the most important part of reading is the second step, when you must put aside the book, walk away from it, let some time pass, and then let your thoughts return to the book. Then the reader will have a more holistic sense of the book, not one that is fragmented by consideration of all of the separate details. Once the reader has a sense of the whole book, the reader is no longer “friend” but severe judge. Now is when the reader must evaluate that book by comparing it against the great masters.

This is no easy feat, as Woolf explains:

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.

But still Woolf urges us not to relinquish our reading judgments to the critics. Instead, she suggests that with time we can “train our taste” to better reflect on the virtues and vices of books. She reminds us that there is more than one type of critic. Even if we are not professional critics, still we can be the type of critic who loves books, and this would be a boon for all authors, who would appreciate this type of critic, one who reads

slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity.

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