As I mentioned yesterday, I thought the titular essay in Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid would set the tone of all the following Virginia Woolf essays, this book being part of the Penguin Great Ideas series. And it seemed that the second essay, “Street Haunting,” had it heading in that direction. In “Thoughts on Peace” Woolf suggests that men need to be compensated for the loss of their guns and that compensation should be “access to creative feelings.” Well “Street Haunting,” if you have never read this marvelous essay, is certainly full of creative feelings.
In order to get out of the house, the excuse is made to go buy a pencil. And we follow Woolf along the street, moving in and out of the lives of the people she sees there. What better access to creative feelings than being able to imagine yourself into the lives of others? To
penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.
And then in the next essay, “Oxford Street Tide,” we meet the bustling and loud working class selling their wares along the street and we are asked to imagine their lives too. But then, the next essay and all that follow are about books and writing and reading. And perhaps, now that I think of it, they are related to the first essay. Because how best to access creative feelings than through reading and writing? Huh. So there it is then. Take away the guns and let them read books. Seems like good compensation to me!
Of the reading and writing essays that fill the rest of the book, some I have read and some I have not. It was a pleasure to read new essays and a joy to revisit old favorites. In “Craftsmanship” Woolf talks about the slipperiness of words. She writes of words as though they are alive, and in some ways they are:
They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.
Can’t you just picture wild herds of words roving across the plains? Of course there are also words that live in dark places, slinking in the shadows, stalking you. Oh those wild words!
There are several essays in which Woolf writes about critics and readers. Critics can be useful, she says in “How it Strikes a Contemporary,” but readers should not bow to them. A reader should
respect [her] own instincts, to follow them fearlessly and, rather than submit them to the control of any critic or reviewer alive, to check them by reading and reading again the masterpieces of the past.
Woolf comes back to this again in “How Should One Read a Book?” Reading is difficult and complex, but trust your instincts because
To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions — there we have none.
The essay offers good advice about how to read. I have read this one before but it has been a long time. I think I shall have to try and remember to return to it every now and then because not only does it offer good advice, but it also gives a great boost of confidence.
Other essays in the book include one on biography and whether or not it can be considered art. Another on asking questions. One on modern fiction. And a really interesting one for writers on choosing your patron (audience) wisely:
To know whom to write for is to know how to write.
Isn’t that the truth?
I loved this little collection. There is so much in it to chew over. So much worth revisiting again and again. If you have a chance to read this little gem, don’t pass it by.