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,
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?"
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
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.