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KAPOW! celebrating ten years at Powells.com
KAPOW! Decade of Reading essay contest
What was your most memorable reading experience of the last ten years?

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Powells.com, we're asking readers worldwide to describe their most memorable reading experience of the past ten years. To get you started, a few well-known writers and Powell's employees have already taken the question for a spin. Here is one of their answers.
The Voyage Out (Modern Library Classics)

The Voyage Out (Modern Library Classics)
by Virginia Woolf

List Price $13.00
Your Price: $3.50
(Used - Trade Paper)

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To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf

List Price $13.95
Your Price: $7.50
(Used - Trade Paper)

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Between the Acts (Harvest Book)

Between the Acts (Harvest Book)
by Virginia Woolf

List Price $13.95
Your Price: $3.50
(Used - Trade Paper)

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Jill Owens on Fierce Reading

A memorable reading experience, vague as the term is, might be defined as that rare instance when the right book has reached you at the right time, and you learn something nearly inexplicable in the joining, something which then becomes second nature, a part of your own voice. Or, if you're very lucky, a series of such books, with a particularly capable guide.

During my last undergraduate semester, I went to Oxford University to study English. I was twenty years old. I had never before been out of the country; I had barely been out of the South. One of my classes was exclusively on Virginia Woolf, taught by a scholar whose name I can't remember. We knew we were going to read almost all of her novels in ten weeks; we had read her first one, The Voyage Out, by the time we walked into the first class. The classes consisted of three American students and the professor, in his office, for a few hours a week. Papers were read aloud, not handed in. And on the first day, it was immediately obvious that we were not, as the year-round Oxford students liked to remind us, all that familiar with British academic standards.

"So on the ship in which Rachel takes the title voyage?" Our don looked up expectantly. Confused, we looked at each other. "The name of the ship?" he probed.

We glanced around, silent. "The Euphrosyne," he supplied, looking at us suspiciously. "It is in the original description of the ship that Woolf employs one of the first instances of the metaphor of the concentric circle; where is the next?"

This was a novel that the three of us, used to easily getting by, if not excelling, in English, had read either around a month before, hazily, or sleepless and nicotine-deprived on the ten-hour flight to London; remembering the names of the main characters should surely be enough; developing fledging ideas about thematic constructs should get us through the first class, at least?

No, indeed. This was to be a different caliber of reading altogether; we were apparently to examine Woolf's work line by metaphorical line. So we reread the novel, and most of her others, with a fierceness which was radically unequalled in the rest of our lives. I ended up practically memorizing To the Lighthouse, and I can still quote passages from Between the Acts, her last and probably most underappreciated novel. If nothing else, we also had to prove that Southern Americans (and we were all women in my class, as well), could hold our own at Oxford. "Reading is not a casual endeavor," my professor proclaimed. "If you are reading while eating, listening to music, riding the train, taking a bath," (all of which, I might add, I still do with great pleasure to this day) "you are not reading, and it will not live in you, as great books should."

I read that summer with an attention that was almost frightening. I scheduled hours a day for it, in my tiny, stuffy dorm room, the way I scheduled my trips to London and my phone calls home. I felt through Woolf's words, watched her images, phrasing, repetition; I tried to read her books as though I were writing them. I simultaneously scrutinized every word choice and plunged headlong into the depths of her hypnotic language. I dreamed in concentric circles, for awhile. And I learned how to read more deeply than I had known was even possible.

Of course, all reading is not destined for this kind of intensity; reading for entertainment, for story, for information, is just as valuable and as magical, in its way (and I do all of those, these days, much more frequently). But Virginia Woolf is a writer well suited to this enterprise; many novels, read with this sort of scrutiny, would fall apart.

I don't read this way very often, anymore; it requires a kind of time that almost no one, outside of school, has to spare. (At the very least, it cuts dramatically into other activities: conversation, say, or laundry.) But when I do read a writer that's worth it — Coetzee, to give one good example — I still slip into intensive reading quite easily, investigating each word with wakeful pleasure.

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