The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf is divided into two editions; The Common Reader First Series (1925) and The Common Reader Second Series (1932). I've read them several times now, and this latest re-read I began in January 2014. Since then I've been reading random chapters, some for fun, some it seemed pertinent to read at the time, but in November of this year I was moved to read it all, all the way through. Trump had just been elected and the nightmarish quality of 2016 seemed to have peaked, and the world most certainly lacked any sense (still true, to be honest) and I needed not so much escapism but some cohesion. I'm now at the stage where I've read a lot of the authors and works mentioned in The Common Reader (by no means all) and I agree with so much of what Virginia Woolf has to say, so for me, reading The Common Reader was about bringing that sense, order, and unity to a big part of my life: reading. For that, reading this work was largely quite a settling and enjoyable experience, inspiring too of course, but on the whole it was about feeling some sense of peace in some part of life. Reading what one agrees with is by no means a rule that should be universal, there must always be balance, but often it is necessary.
So, as I say I've been reading this for a few years now and I've written several posts on various chapters. Here's the chapters I've blogged about:
First Series (1925)
Second Series (1932)
In fact there are 43 essays, 21 in the first, 22 in the second (the titles of each can be found on the online edition: The First Series here and The Second Series here).
The collection begins with a very brief essay explaining what is meant by 'The Common Reader', so brief in fact it can be quoted in full:
There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. “ . . . I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man’s approval.
The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.
From here we embark on a journey through literature, beginning with 'The Pastons and Chaucer', but this is not a strictly chronological expedition through the printed word, though on the whole there is an element of that. From the Medieval and Early Modern era we step back to the Greeks in the third essay 'On not knowing Greek', which has similarities with the first essay of The Second Series 'The Strange Elizabethans', the idea of a familiar body of literature written in a time so very alien to us. On the Greeks she writes,
For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek, since in our ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys, since we do not know how the words sounded, or where precisely we ought to laugh, or how the actors acted, and between this foreign people and ourselves there is not only difference of race and tongue but a tremendous breach of tradition.
And on the Elizabethans:
There are few greater delights than to go back three or four hundred years and become in fancy at least an Elizabethan. That such fancies are only fancies, that this “becoming an Elizabethan”, this reading sixteenth-century writing as currently and certainly as we read our own is an illusion, is no doubt true. Very likely the Elizabethans would find our pronunciation of their language unintelligible; our fancy picture of what it pleases us to call Elizabethan life would rouse their ribald merriment.
On the subject of Elizabethans: she writes on that familiarity I mentioned in 'Notes on an Elizabethan Play' but then brings to our attention those we have forgotten: Shakespeare, she rightly points out, dominates, but why?
Nobody can fail to remember the plot of the Antigone, because what happens is so closely bound up with the emotions of the actors that we remember the people and the plot at one and the same time. But who can tell us what happens in the White Devil, or the Maid’s Tragedy, except by remembering the story apart from the emotions which it has aroused? As for the lesser Elizabethans, like Greene and Kyd, the complexities of their plots are so great, and the violence which those plots demand so terrific, that the actors themselves are obliterated and emotions which, according to our convention at least, deserve the most careful investigation, the most delicate analysis, are clean sponged off the slate. And the result is inevitable. Outside Shakespeare and perhaps Ben Jonson, there are no characters in Elizabethan drama, only violences whom we know so little that we can scarcely care what becomes of them.
On this theme of the lost or forgotten, Woolf writes on authors and people perhaps no longer on a radar. The obvious example of this is 'Lives of the Obscure' in the First Series, portraits of the Taylors and the Edgeworths, and also Laetitia Pilkington. But, from the strange to old favourites: Woolf writes on authors we know and love: Michel de Montaigne, Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, George Gissing (perhaps better known in her time), the Brontës and others.
Not only does Woolf look back but she also looks forward: The Common Reader also has elements of a kind of treatise in some parts. By looking at what has passed, in particular her essay titled 'The Russian Point of View' (one of my favourites) she writes about being inspired by 19th Century authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov:
... it is the soul that is the chief character in Russian fiction. Delicate and subtle in Tchekov, subject to an infinite number of humours and distempers, it is of greater depth and volume in Dostoevsky; it is liable to violent diseases and raging fevers, but still the predominant concern... The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.
Such authors would, as she explains in this and in 'Modern Fiction', shape her methods for her works.
The Common Reader is an outstanding work of literary criticism. As one would expect from Woolf it is beautifully and elegantly written, insightful, moving, exciting, bringing together the past, present, and future in one work. Her excitement is infectious and also touching: my favourite quote from this is the final paragraph:
Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”
This is my favourite work by her and because of that I will always return to it when I fancy and when appropriate, so in 2017 I will certainly be singling out some more of these fine essays. A great and wonderful read, and, at the time, it was very necessary.
My final Deal Me In title of 2016 was 'The Strange Elizabethans' by Virginia Woolf, but as you can see I've read the entire The Common Reader. I have a great many titles on my Classics Club list from the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, and when I've finished then I'll no doubt return to 'The Strange Elizabethans'. For now, though, yes, this is the last title of the year for this challenge. I've very much enjoyed all the titles, particularly these from The Common Reader! Tomorrow Jay is announcing the new 2017 Challenge, and until then here's a look back at what I read for this in 2016:
52 / 52
♥ Essays ♥
♦ Poems ♦
Queen: Chamber Music by James Joyce.
Nine: Lycidas by John Milton.
Seven: Hyperion by John Keats.
Four: Marina by T. S. Eliot.
♣ Plays ♣
Queen: The Alchemist by Ben Jonson.
Eight: All For Love by John Dryden.
Seven: Salomé by Oscar Wilde.
Four: Exiles by James Joyce.
Three: King Lear by William Shakespeare.
♠ Short Stories ♠
King: Micromegas by Voltaire.
Queen: Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf.
Four: Fair Exchange by Émile Zola.
Two: Big Michu by Émile Zola.