I’m a sucker for anything Virginia Woolf so when I was offered a review copy of A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf by Ilana Simons I said, “Sure!” And then I worried that it would be some kind of wacky New Age book. It’s not New Age at all, even though sometimes it does get a little wacky. Over all though, it was a good read.
The premise of the book is using Virignia Woolf’s writings both fiction and nonfiction to find some insight into how to live an open and engaged life. Now, you might be wondering how a writer who killed herself could have anything to say on how to live, but just because a person was mentally ill doesn’t mean she has nothing worthwhile or valid to say. The book’s author, Ilana Simons, has a PhD in literature and is currently studying to become a psychologist.
The book has chapters about things like working hard if you believe in something even if you don’t think you will succeed, and take on a challenging friendship because in doing so you will learn a lot about yourself.
There is a wonderful chapter called “Lie to Encourage Your Friends.” Simons tells the story of Woolf’s struggle to write The Years. She had worked on it for five years and was filled with doubt over whether the book was any good. She sent it off to the the printer without letting Leonard see it. When she got the printer’s proofs she worked herself into a deep depression while going over them. Finally she gave the proofs to Leonard and told him to burn them. He suggested that maybe it wasn’t as bad as she feared and he read late into the night until he had finished it. He told Virginia that the book was “Extraordinarily good,” and “as good as any of them.” Virginia’s depression lifted, she finished correcting the proofs. The book became her first American bestseller. But what did Leonard really think of it? In his diary he wrote that it was “slightly dead even at the moment of birth.” But he knew he couldn’t tell Virginia that, so he lied. The point being, that it is ok to lie to your friends in order to encourage them to keep going on a project that is important to them.
There is also a very Emersonian chapter (Emerson is everywhere!) about speaking up. It’s easy to think you are smart and unique and better than everyone if all you do is sit in the corner and silently pass judgment. Solitude is good and important (there is a chapter on that in the book too), but it is also necessary to get out there and speak, to make fools of ourselves, to make mistakes, to test ideas. If we speak up we might learn a thing or two about ourselves and our ideas.
The last chapter of the book is the one I enjoyed most. It is about reading and the necessity of reading because of all the things books can teach us like how to pay attention and to how to be patient.
Do I feel enlightened after finishing A Life of One’s Own? No. Do I feel like a better person? No. The book didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. But it did tell me things that is good to be reminded about from time to time. And it told me these things in the context of Virginia Woolf. If better living is the pill, then Woolf is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.