Sunday, May 25, 2014

BW22: Virginia Woolf and the art of Reading

I love this essay by Virginia Woolf and go back to it time and again.  Since # 20 in Susan Wise Bauer's list of great fiction in Well Educated Mind is Mrs. Dalloway, decided to reprise the essay once again. Also Brainpicking's has a wonderful article on how to read a book which also highlights Woolf's essay on  How to Read a Book which can be found in her book The Second Common Reader.  And don't forget to check out the preceding book - The Common Reader highlighting her essays on Defoe, Montaigne and Austen to name a few.

At this late hour of the world's history books are to be found in every room of the house - in the nursery, in the drawing room, in the dining room, in the kitchen. And in some houses they have collected so that they have to be accommodated with a room of their own. Novels, poems, histories, memoirs, valuable books in leather, cheap books in paper - one stops sometimes before them and asks in a transient amazement what is the pleasure I get, or the good I create, from passing my eyes up and down these innumerable lines of print? Reading is a very complex art - the hastiest examination of our sensations as a reader will show us that much. And our duties as readers are many and various. But perhaps it may be said that our first duty to a book is that one should read it for the first time as if one were writing it.

One should begin by sitting in the dock with the criminal, not by mounting the bench to sit among the Judges. One should be an accomplice with the writer in his act, whether good or bad, of creation. For each of these books, however it may differ in kind and quality, is an attempt to make something. And our first duty as readers is to try and understand what the writer is making from the first word with which he builds his first sentence to the last with which he ends his book. We must not impose our design upon him; we must not try to make him conform his will to ours. We must allow Defoe to be Defoe and Jane Austen to be Jane Austen as freely as we allow the tiger to have his fur and the tortoise to have his shell. And this is very difficult. For it is one of the qualities of greatness that it brings Heaven and earth and human nature into conformity with its own vision.

The great writers thus often require us to make heroic efforts in order to read them rightly. They bend us and break us. To go from Defoe to Jane Austen, from Hardy to Peacock, from Trollope to Meredith, from Richardson to Rudyard Kipling, is to be wrenched and distorted, to be thrown violently this way and that. And so, too, with the lesser writers. Each is singular; each has a view, a temperament, an experience of his own which may conflict with ours but must be allowed to express itself fully if we are to do him justice. And the writers who have most to give us often do most violence to our prejudices, particularly if they are our own contemporaries, so that we have need of all our imagination and understanding if we are to get the utmost that they can give us. But reading, as we have suggested, is a complex art. It does not merely consist in sympathizing and understanding. It consists, too, in criticizing and in judging.

The reader must leave the dock and mount the bench. He must cease to be the friend; he must become the judge. And this second process, which we may call the process of after-reading, for it is often done without the book before us, yields an even more solid pleasure than that which we receive when we are actually turning the pages. During the actual reading new impressions are always cancelling or completing the old. Delight, anger, boredom, laughter succeed each other incessantly as we read. Judgment is suspended, for we cannot know what may come next. But now the book is completed. It has taken a definite shape. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in several different parts. It has a shape, it has a being. And this shape, this being, can be held in the mind and compared with the shapes the essays of other books and given its own size and smallness by comparison with theirs.

But if this process of judging and deciding is full of pleasure it is also full of difficulty. Not much help can be looked for from outside. Critics and criticism abound, but it does not help us greatly to read the views of another mind when our own is still hot from a book that we have just read. It is after one has made up one's own opinion that the opinions of others are most illuminating. It is when we can defend our own judgment that we get most from the judgment of the great critics - the Johnsons, the Drydens and the Arnolds.

To make up our own minds we can best help ourselves first by realizing the impression that the book has left as fully and sharply as possible, and then by comparing this impression with the impressions that we have formulated in the past. There they hang in the wardrobe of the mind - the shapes of the books we have read, like clothes that we have taken off and hung up to wait their season. Thus, if we have just read, say, Clarissa Harlowe for the first time we take it and let it show itself against the shape that remains in our minds after reading Anna Karenina. We place them side by side and at once the outlines of the two books are cut out against each other as the angle of a house (to change the figure) is cut out against the fullness of the harvest moon. We contrast Richardson's prominent qualities with Tolstoi's.

 We contrast his indirectness and verbosity with Tolstoi's brevity and directness. We ask ourselves why it is that each writer has chosen so different an angle of approach. We compare the emotion that we felt at different crises of their books. We speculate as to the difference between the 18th century in England and the 19th century in Russia - but there is no end to the questions that at once suggest themselves as we place the books together. Thus by degrees, by asking questions and answering them, we find that we have decided that the book we have just read is of this kind or that, has this degree of merit or that, takes its station at this point or at that in the literature as a whole. And if we are good readers we thus judge not only the classics and the masterpieces of the dead, but we pay the living writers the compliment of comparing them as they should be compared with the pattern of the great books of the past.

Thus, then, when the moralists ask us what good we do by running our eyes over these many printed pages, we can reply that we are doing our part as readers to help masterpieces into the world. We are fulfilling our share of the creative task - we are stimulating, encouraging, rejecting, making our approval and disapproval felt; and are thus acting as a check and a spur upon the writer. That is one reason for reading books - we are helping to bring good books into the world and to make bad books impossible. But it is not the true reason. The true reason remains the inscrutable one - we get pleasure from reading. It is a complex pleasure and a difficult pleasure; it varies from age to age and from book to book. But that pleasure is enough.

Indeed that pleasure is so great that one cannot doubt that without it the world would be a far different and a far inferior place from what it is. Reading has changed the world and continues to change it. When the day of judgment comes therefore and all secrets are laid bare, we shall not be surprised to learn that the reason why we have grown from apes to men, and left our caves and dropped our bows and arrows and sat round the fire and talked and given to the poor and helped the sick - the reason why we have made shelter and society out of the wastes of the desert and the tangle of the jungle is simply this - we have loved reading.

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

BW21: RIP Mary Stewart

One of my favorite authors, Mary Stewart, passed away this past week at the age of 97.  Coincidentally, or whether it was serendipity, I began rereading The Crystal Cave a couple weeks ago. I first read the Merlin series which consisted of The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973), and The Last Enchantment (1979) and Wicked Day (1983) back during the late 70's, early 80's.  Periodically, I would pull them out and reread them.  I read and reread all her books during that period of time, but unfortunately only kept the Merlin Series in my stacks.   The series has always stood the test of time and each time I get something new out of them.  

I only have to hear one of the titles of her books such as Touch Not the Cat or Nine Coaches Waiting or The Ivy Tree or Airs above the Ground to be taken right back into the story.   

The guardian posted a wonderful obituary detailing her life, so be sure to check it out. 

Stewart introduced a different kind of heroine for a newly emerging womanhood. It was her "anti-namby-pamby" reaction, as she called it, to the "silly heroine" of the conventional contemporary thriller who "is told not to open the door to anybody and immediately opens it to the first person who comes along". Instead, Stewart's stories were narrated by poised, smart, highly educated young women who drove fast cars and knew how to fight their corner. Also tender-hearted and with a strong moral sense, they spoke, one felt, with the voice of their creator. Her writing must have provided a natural form of expression for a person not given to self-revelation.....
Stewart's fans were above all attracted to her wonderful storytelling, which she saw as a skill she was born with – "I am first and foremost a teller of tales" – but also by the warmth and vivacity of her characters and the sharply drawn settings. These ranged from Skye with icy mist coiling around the Cuillin mountains in Wildfire at Midnight (1956) to the searing heat of Corfu in This Rough Magic (1964), with its echoes of The Tempest.

If you've never read one of her stories, do yourself a favor and check her out. You'll be glad you did.  In honor of Mary Stewart, read one of her books this year.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

BW20: Armchair traveling through 16th century

Happy Mother's Day to you all!

The sixteenth century, the high Renaissance period,  which ran from 1501 to 1600, was an time of extraordinary change.  The beginning of the modern era of science -The first flush toilets appeared,  Leonardo Da Vinci designed a horizontal water wheel, Conrad Gesner invented a graphic pencil, and Copernicus published his theory that the earth was not the center of the universe. 

Literature wise, many brilliant authors were born and buried during that period of time including the creator of Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes, (born 1547), English playwright Christopher Marlow, (born 1548), William Shakespeare (born 1554), Italian author Ludovico Ariosto (1474 - 1553), French author Francois Rabelais(1483 - 1553) and Sir Thomas More (1478 - 1535).

Philosophers include Michel de Montaigne, (1533 - 1592), one of the more influential writers during that time period.  His Essays were published in 1580 and are regarded as the predecessor of the modern essays.  Also Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince (1469-1527), published 5 years after his death in 1532.  Other notables include Francis Bacon, and theologians John Calvin and Martin Luther to name a few.

What about the women you ask since this is mother's day.   Notable women of the century includes Queen Elizabeth of England, the Queen Mother Catherine de' Medicis of France, Queen Jeanne d'Albret of Navarre, and Mary Queen of Scots.

Currently in my backpack are Montaigne's Essays,  along with the historical fiction story, Grania: She King of the Irish Seas by Morgan Llewelyn. More than enough to keep me busy this month and plenty of rabbit trails to keep anyone occupied for years to come. 

Join me in exploring the 16th century. 

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

BW19: Monuments Men and Art Fiction/History Mystery Reading Month

Hello May!  The new month quietly sneaked up on me and we are in the homestretch with only 4 weeks left until James is done with 8th grade. Ye gads!  Never imagined I still be homeschooling when he reached high school, but time flies when you are having fun.
I enjoy learning about art, but sometimes the non fiction art books, despite the beautiful and sometimes mysterious pictures, can be a dry subject.  Which is why I love art fiction and art history mysteries.  And I managed to pass on the love to my son when he was younger through delightful kids books written by James Mayhew and Laurence Anholt, plus Getting to Know the Worlds Greatest Artist's by Mike Venezia

Even though I don't read a lot of non fiction for fun, I had heard great things about Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and preferred to read the book over watching the movie.  And I didn't complain too much when the book arrived and immediately disappeared into my son's room upon arrival. 

Now it's my turn, and since a few folks on Well Trained Mind are interested in a readalong, I am declaring May - Monuments Men and art fiction/history mystery reading month. 

One of my favorite art history mystery writers is Iain Pears, from Oxford England, who wrote The Flavia De Stefano mysteries about a Roman art theft squad which starts with The Raphael Affair.  I've read the majority of his books and currently have Giotto's Hand in my stacks.

Currently on my radar are two new to me authors Tracy Chevalier, most known for her story -  The Girl with the Pearl Earring and Susan Dunant who wrote The Birth of Venus.   You'll note that the three authors have something in common, they all live in England.  If you've been armchair traveling along with me, I told you we'd be extending our stay in England for a couple months.  *grin*

For my non fiction buffs, check out Goodreads Best Art and Art History books and fiction wise, Popular Art History mysteries.

Join me in reading Monument's Men.

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