THR Web Features   /   July 13, 2021

The Idiosyncratic School of Reading

And the guiding muse of Whim.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Virginia Woolf. Via Wikimedia Commons)

[T]hough reading seems so simple—a mere matter of knowing the alphabet—it is indeed so difficult that it is doubtful whether anybody knows anything about it.

Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?” (1926)

How should one read a book? The question is usually rhetorical, a set-up for a premeditated answer. When Virginia Woolf posed it in the title of a 1926 lecture, she insisted the question was anything but rhetorical. Indeed, explaining why her talk was not titled “How to Read a Book,” she told her audience, the girls of Hayes Court Common School in Kent, that she was not “laying down law.” Indeed, she urged the girls to disagree with any ideas she shared. “[Y]ou are probably right to do so,” she said, “I cannot send you to the bottom of the class. There are no classes. That again, is another reason why one enjoys reading.”

In the lecture and subsequent published revisions, Woolf offered the most eloquent case yet made for what I have dubbed the “Idiosyncratic School” of reading, the company of writers and educators who celebrate the powers and particularities of lay readers. In her piece, Woolf rejected a way of thinking about reading that Alan Jacobs calls the “Vigilant School.” Jacobs borrows the phrase from C.S. Lewis, who applied it to certain contemporary critics also known to Woolf, including the Cambridge don I.A. Richards. These vigilantes treated reading as a problem of “social and ethical hygiene.” In the American context, Mortimer Adler’s 1940 bestseller How to Read a Book was and is probably the most influential formulation of the doctrine.

Had Woolf known Adler’s work—she died in 1941—she would have recognized it as merely the newest installment in a genre that was already a century old. Even the title would have seemed entirely conventional, given how many lectures, magazine articles, and books had already used it. There was, to name a small sample of frequently reprinted specimens, How to Read a Book in the Best Way (1873) by the linguist George Philip Philes; Books and reading: or, What books shall I read and how shall I read them? (1870) by Noah Porter, then President of Yale; and The Highways of Literature: Or, What to Read and How to Read (1882) by the British schoolmaster David Pryde. To get the flavor of this writing, consider Porter’s advice about reading with attention: “He who would read with attention must learn to be interested in what he reads. He must feel wants or learn to create wants which must be supplied. If it be history that he would read with attention, he must feel deficiencies that will not let him rest until they are supplied.” Reading is, fundamentally, a problem of the Will. When Woolf told the girls at Hayes Court Common School that she wasn’t going to explain “How to Read a Book,” one can imagine that some audience members breathed a sigh of relief. Everybody knew what that title meant.

Woolf objected not just to the regulations, protocols, and lifetime reading plans that are the hallmarks of the Vigilant tradition. She rejected its fundamental assumption: that lay readers are a pitiable lot. Such readers, Vigilant treatises tell us, digest their reading poorly. Amid the profusion of print, they are at risk of feasting on trash without knowing that more wholesome classics are available. They are prone to wander off into their own thoughts when they really ought to be paying attention to the author’s. They skip around among books, often abandoning them when boredom sets in! (This scandalous practice had its own name in the Victorian period: “desultory reading.”) Lay readers, in short, desperately need professional guidance. Unsurprisingly, few vigilantes entertain the possibility that lay readers have habits or tastes worth preserving—or, even less, that they might have some lessons to offer the “pros.” 

Woolf was not the first to gainsay the strictures of Vigilance. In his 1822 essay, “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading,” Charles Lamb lampooned all claims to “detachment” in one’s reading habits, parading his own idiosyncratic tastes concerning not only what books to read but also how and under what conditions to read them. “Milton,” he writes, “almost requires a solemn service of music to be played before you enter upon him.” A connoisseur of the essay, Woolf certainly knew Lamb’s piece. But a closer influence was her own father, Leslie Stephen, himself an eminent man of letters.

The strongest statement of Stephen's principles appears in “The Study of English Literature,” a lecture delivered to a group of male students in 1887. The timing is important. One year earlier, John Lubbock, a Member of Parliament, had compiled a checklist of the “best hundred books” as an accompaniment to a lecture of his own, and its publication set off a national brouhaha, eliciting rival inventories from several luminaries, including John Ruskin, William Morris, and the novelist Wilkie Collins. (Oscar Wilde replied that what was really needed was a list of “Books Not to Read.”) Stephen considered the whole debate not only frivolous but ill-conceived:

Some distinguished men have recently been amusing themselves with the insoluble problem, Which are the best hundred books? I say insoluble, because to my mind the best book for any man is that in which he takes most interest; and as men’s powers and tastes vary indefinitely, and there is no power and no taste which may not be stimulated by reading, so the suitability of books depends upon the idiosyncrasy of the reader.

For Stephen, the “best books” list was not a national issue but a personal one. The author knew what any parent who has observed her children’s reading habits closely knows: that just as we favor certain foods, so do we have distinct reading “appetites.” (It is not irrelevant that Stephen had five children when he delivered this lecture, Virginia, then five, being his fourth.) Stephen argued that if people are left to read what they like, they will keep at it and, what’s more, derive great benefit from it. Idiosyncrasy he held a better compass than John Lubbock’s master plan. “Take hold anywhere,” he declared, “read what you really like and not what some one [sic] tells you that you ought to like; let your reading be part of your lives.”

In her 1926 lecture, the forty-four-year-old Woolf began to articulate her own version of this line of thought. It would mature through two subsequent printings: a longer version that ran in The Yale Review later that year and a later revision that ran as the last piece in Woolf’s second series of Common Reader essays, in 1932. The final version begins by emphasizing the genuinely interrogatory nature of the title:

Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you. 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.

For Woolf, as for her father, reading should be a self-directed exercise, governed by our own tastes and filtered through our distinctive imaginations and life experiences. Our “loves” and “hates,” as she says toward the close of the essay, are inescapable aspects of our reaction to a work. We should not pretend otherwise. “[W]e cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy,” she writes, “without impoverishing it.” As the critic Maria DiBattista has argued, in these sentences Woolf comes as close to an “unqualified libertarian line […] as she ever does in insisting that no law or authority must be permitted to fetter freedom of reading.”

But Woolf did not end there. “How Should One Read a Book?” is not just a Reader’s Declaration of Independence. Exactly because she holds lay readers in such high esteem, she calls for her audience to use their freedom well: “[T]o enjoy freedom, if the platitude is pardonable, we have of course to control ourselves. We must not squander our powers, helplessly and ignorantly, squirting half the house in order to water a single rosebush; we must train them, exactly and powerfully…”

Talk of “not squandering our powers” but “training them, exactly and powerfully” may have the ring of Vigilance, I recognize. Yet the actual exercises she recommends are not driven by hard and fast rules, as in Vigilant treatises. She urges her fellow readers to do some creative writing themselves to sharpen their attention to the techniques of masterful writers (“turn from your blurred and littered pages to the opening pages of some great novelist—Defoe, Jane Austen, Hardy. Now you will be better able to appreciate their mastery”). She encourages her audience to think comparatively about authors writing in the same genre and authors working in different ones. (“The impact of poetry is so hard and direct for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then—how sudden and complete is our immersion.… The illusion of fiction [by contast] is gradual; its effects are prepared.”) What she describes are exercises in appreciation. She makes no promises that by doing such things we will sound more cultured at dinner parties, increase our reading speed, fix our character defects, or accomplish more at work. Rather, the goal is simply to “get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read.”

Pleasure, then, is no enemy of discipline. Jacobs, one of the strongest contemporary advocates for the Idiosyncratic School, has superbly encapsulated Woolf’s point in his “one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading”: Read at Whim. Whim stands as an obvious alternative to the Vigilant call for Will. Yet notice the capital “w” in “Whim.” It differentiates Whim from the ordinary, lower-case sort, which the critic defines as “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both.” Followers of Whim, by contrast, make a serious commitment to knowing themselves as readers so that their idiosyncrasies—their peculiar interests, their reading backgrounds, those loves and hatreds sacred to Woolf—may provide coordinates for future action.  

Whim offers a compact expression of the recursive formula for the reading life that is promoted by most members of the Idiosyncratic School. Reading allows you to know yourself better. Such self-knowledge enables you to exercise your freedom well, choosing books that will provide the thicker sorts of pleasures that Woolf and Stephen describe. Those pleasures keep you reading, and the additional reading supplies fresh data about yourself. So the cycle begins anew. Self-knowledge and pleasure, the Idiosyncratics teach us, go hand in hand through the library.