Well, I said yesterday on this very blog that I would spend some time dipping into the words of the wonderful Virginia Woolf – and indeed I did. As I shared on social media, I felt that the lovely little pamphlet of her essay “How Should One Read a Book?”, which arrived recently as part of my Renard Press subscription, would be the ideal choice. And it was – proof, if it ever was needed, that Woolf was a stunning essayist.

Woolf’s essay dates from 1925, and as a note at the front explains, was based on a paper read at a school. It was originally published in “The Common Reader: Second Series” and Renard issued it as a World Book Day Special, which I think is a brilliant idea. What’s equally brilliant, of course, is Woolf’s writing; whenever I return to it, I find it takes my breath away and I can’t believe how her prose soars.

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

In the essay, Woolf explores how best to be a reader, advocating following your own path and loving whatever you happen to love, despite the pressure to only read works of which others approve. It’s a credo with which I can wholeheartedly agree – and the essay ends with a much-quoted paragraph that gets my emotions every time (and no, I’m not going to quote it here – you really do need to read this essay yourself if you’re a booklover!

I shan’t go on any more about how brilliant the essay is, because it’s Woolf which in my mind equal genius. Instead, I shall share a couple more sentences and urge you to track down a copy of this (and indeed anything by her). Virginia Woolf left an incredible legacy, and we readers are all the more fortunate because of it.

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist – the great artist – gives you.

…merely by going from friend to friend, from garden to garden, from house to house, we have passed from one end of English literature to another and wake to find ourselves here again in the present, if we can so differentiate this moment from all that have gone before. This, then, is one of the ways in which we can read these lives and letters; we can make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author.

(on reading biographies)