Thursday, April 28, 2011

Common Reading

Virginia Woolf believed in readers.  Her two books of essays, The Common Reader I and II,  are invitations to read widely and idiosyncratically; implicitly her own responses to books suggest how many ways there are to engage with what you read and make it part of the furniture of your own mind.  When she learned that her local library's copy of The Common Reader had its pages splattered with food, she was delighted:  it meant the book was being used as it should be, consulted as people prepared or ate their meals. It meant reading was part of their daily lives.  In her various essays on reading, she created the portrait of the young reader with his or her list of classics; she thought readers were important forces in the creation of the new forms of fiction appearing in Britain in the twenties and thirties: theirs was the important task of helping writers understand what worked and what didn't.  Reading for oneself stood for intellectual liberty.  In "How Should One Read a Book" she wrote "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."

She was, of course, known for her miraculous and luminous novels, yet the sixth thick volume of her essays has just been published.  My (used) hardcover copy is apparently in the mail, but  I'm still working away at volume 5 and have just finished reading her essay "Phases of Fiction," an essay written between Orlando and The Waves, in which she provides a complex and intriguing classification system for novels.  Yet what is inspiring about this essay is her wide and suggestive reading,   She makes me, at the beginning of a sabbatical, want to create one of those lists of systematic reading she believed was the provenance of the young.  But being in one's sixties, particularly on a sabbatical, is to return in some way to one's youth.

So here are my sabbatical goals.  I realize that, the spring publishing cycle not completely under way, it's dominated by historical examples.  So please, please make your own suggestions.

Proust's In Search of Lost Time--yes, all six volumes.
War and Peace.  I haven't read it since the early 70s.
Doctor Zhivago
Carol Shields, particularly Larry's Party and The Stone Diaries.   
Aphra Behn's Orinoko.  Woolf says Behn did something quite important when, as a middle-class woman, she began to write to provide for her family.  She made the woman writer into a professional.
Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus
Joan Thomas's Reading by Lightning
Kathleen Winter's Annabelle
Something by Geraldine Jewsbury, a friend of Jane Carlyle and apparently a novelist, Woolf says, who understood her time.  Sometimes I think it's the B-list authors that tell us the most about an historical moment.
Jan Zwicky and Tim Lilburn.  Any suggestions?
Lorna Crozier's selected poems, The Blue Hour of the Day
Quite a spate of books on climate change (research for the next novel), including Tim Flannery's latest, Here on Earth:  A Natural History of the Planet.
Mark Abley's The Prodigal Tongue
Anne Simpson's Is.  I loved the title poem, published in Prairie Fire along with a beautiful essay on poetry and community.
Jorie Graham.  I'll start with Sea Change.

If every one who visits leaves one suggestion, I'll have a remarkable year of "common reading."  Thanks in advance.


  1. Alexander MacLeod, Light Lifting

  2. Great suggestion, Medrie. I'll add it.

  3. The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles AND/OR The Lover, by Marguerite Duras (because I still lose my breath a little every time I think of them).
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick AND/OR A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess (because I cannot imagine you reading dystopian science fiction).
    Dearest Creature, by Amy Gerstler (because "Mrs. Monster Pens Her Memoirs" is the new "Lady Lazarus", or so I say).
    Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (because there's no chance you've read it since it doesn't come out until January 2012 - my foolproof suggestion - and I'm certain it will be good).

    You know what would've been funny? If you made this into a "list of books to read before I die" post and just put down Proust, all six volumes.

  4. As a closet introvert--or as an introvert who "passes" for an extrovert--I'm really looking forward to Quiet. Can I send advance copies to people in my life who won't stop talking?

    Thanks for the great suggestions, Brooke!

  5. Bye-and-Bye: Selected Poems by Charles Wright.

  6. Thanks for the suggestion, Brenda. I'll certainly add it to my list.

    This has been such fun, asking people for suggestions!