Friday, November 13, 2009

Book review; "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid" by Virginia Woolf

This slim collection (roughly 100 pages) of nine essays by Virgina Woolf, published as part of the "Penguin Great Ideas" series may be the best book I've read in the past ten years. It's also one of the hardest to review. The explanation is straightforward - every time I try, the review just devolves into tired cliches ("shimmering prose", "scintillating wit", "a writer at the height of her powers", anyone?) or fills up with direct quotes from the work itself. Not just skimpy little quotelets either, but huge, copyright-infringing, chunks of text. Pagesfull. I want to share every genius-soaked paragraph with you, and once I start, I just can't stop.

So, how to proceed? Why not implement a little self-restraint by resorting to that tired old device of listing the individual essay titles (easy) and - for a selected few - giving a few brief comments on wherein I think their genius lies (hard).

Well, duh, the genius lies in Virginia, of course. It pains me to acknowledge that, until about 6 months ago, I had this image of VW that was pretty much completely at odds with her warmth, wit, and ability to write prose that sparkles and enchants. (I'm sorry - that sounds so ridiculously pretentiously critspeak, but it's bloody well true. I will try to avoid the words "limpid" and "limn" in this review, if that's any consolation). How could I have been so wrong - she's smart as a whip, she's funny, and writes as if taking dictation from on high. Boy, can this woman write. I really, really, really hope that you will beg, borrow, or steal this collection to experience it for yourself.

So what does she write about here?

1. Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.
2. Street Haunting.
3. Oxford Street Tide.
4. Craftsmanship.
5. The Art of Biography.
6. How it Strikes a Contemporary.
7. Why?
8. The Patron and the Crocus.
9. Modern Fiction.
10. How Should One Read a Book?

Each of the 9 essays I've read so far has blown me away, either because it contains one or more flashes of pure insight, or because of the incomparable quality of the writing, and - in most cases - some combination of the two. In six pages, the title essay contains some of the sanest observations about war in anything I've read outside of Orwell. The second two essays capture the quotidian pleasures of walking the streets of London with a wit and perspicacity that leaves me slack-jawed in admiration. Essay #4, one of my favorites (together with the final essay, which is simply perfect) is a spellbinding discourse on the slippery charm of words. Essays 6, 8, and 9 contain some of the most cogent remarks about writing that I have ever read. #7 is a hilarious takedown of those who would write or lecture about literature.
But it's the final essay in this book that raises the whole collection to my top 5 books of all time list (there's going to be some ugly rearranging that will have to take place on my "top 20" shelf, and a difficult choice lies ahead).

"How Should One Read a Book" is where my self-discipline breaks down. This is an essay that demands to be quoted from. In whole chunks. With difficulty, I will confine myself to three:

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. ... 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.

In your face, Harold Bloom!

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words.

I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns ... the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy, as He sees us coming with our books under our arms: "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."

By the time the title essay of this collection was published, Virgina Woolf had already filled her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse. I find her suicide enormously saddening, particularly given the brilliance of these essays. Subsequent deaths, such as those of Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace, suggests that such brilliance comes at a price.

But the work lives on. You have to read these essays! They are astonishing, in the best possible way.

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