Book Review: Essays by Virginia Woolf

A former student of mine, who graduated just this past June and is now halfway through his freshman year in college, came back to give me a gift. This was cool. It’s never happened quite this way before: he wanted to give me something to thank me for teaching him how to write. I’m not sure that I did, but I’m sure that I helped him get better at writing; I was his English teacher for three of his four years of high school at the tiny charter school where I work, so yeah, I suppose I deserve a fair amount of the credit and the blame for whatever he can do in terms of literary achievement in school. He said he did well in his English 101 class, and so he wanted to give me something. First Thank-you-for-teaching-me gift I’ve ever received. (I’ve gotten thanks, I’ve gotten several really glowing compliments, and I’ve gotten presents; never gotten one like this before.)

He got me this:

It’s a first edition of a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf. It’s awesome for a number of reasons: it’s a first edition, which is neato; it’s essays, which I love and always want to write and to read; it’s Virginia Woolf, who is one of my absolute favorite writers and strongest influences; and it’s called The Captain’s Death Bed, which has a nice pirate-y feel to it. Awesome.

So I read it, of course. It did take me two tries: not because it’s terribly complicated – Woolf is too good and too clear a writer to make her reading that hard to understand – but for two reasons: first, because this is the last of four volumes of her unpublished essays collected after her suicide in 1941, and so a number of the pieces in it are more obscure in subject; and second, because right when I started reading this book, I was finishing up my semester and grading about twenty thousand student essays, and then the day after the semester ended, I had a wisdom tooth removed, which included a half-day fast, my first 24-hour period without coffee in over 25 years, my first time under general anaesthesia, my first time taking Percocet, and of course, a whole lot of pain. So I read about a third of the way through the essays, and then stopped; and then picked it up again two days ago, when my head was a bit straighter on my neck and my brain was readier to read.

I’m glad I picked it back up. Turns out it was really the first several essays that were too obscure for me to enjoy: they are mostly responses to literature which Woolf read, and which I never have – never read Carlyle, never read Turgenev, and certainly never read the half-dozen diarists and memoirists she wrote about, mostly English pastors from the last 300 years. I also couldn’t relate at all to those kinds of books, as I am not a big reader of biography or published diaries; so the first several essays really didn’t speak to me.

But the rest of them did. Did they ever.

There’s a lot here. There’s a wonderful piece about being a good writer versus being a great writer; I don’t know that I agree with Woolf’s examples of a great writer (She includes Jane Austen, Dostoevsky, James Joyce, all of which I can take or leave – and Joyce I’d rather leave; she doesn’t include herself, who I would prefer over all of ’em. Though of course I understand not putting herself into the list of great writers in her own essay.), but her essential idea is this story she tells of getting into a train car and seeing the end of a conversation between two strangers. One of those strangers she calls Mrs. Brown, and describes her in some detail; it’s never clear if this is a real person or not, a real event or a created example. She says that the writers she considers good, who include H.G. Wells and a couple of Brits I’ve never read, would talk about everything in the world other than Mrs. Brown; they’d talk about the town where she lives, about the educational or economic system that created her, but not about her. The great writers would tell you about Mrs. Brown, and they’d do it poetically.

This gave me pause. I don’t know that I write about Mrs. Brown. I think I actually do. Though I am not and never will be a great writer, I like that I’m at least focused on the right subject: the characters. The people.

Then there’s a great piece about reviewing books, in which she ends with the conclusion that reviewers should shut the hell up except to give their honest, informed opinion to the author of the book they read. I don’t know what to do with that, either. This piece caused a conflict for me, because at the end of it, her husband and literary executor, Leonard Woolf, added a note in which he disagreed with her, and said that reviewers are necessary to give the reading public an idea of what books to buy and where to spend their time and money; I like that answer better, but I found it so incredibly distasteful that the guy would throw his two cents into the argument of HIS DEAD WIFE when she couldn’t respond back that I can’t agree with anything he said. So I’ll have to think about the way I write reviews.

Then there are the beautiful pieces: there’s one called The Sun and the Fish, one called Gas (about going under anaesthesia at the dentist; how perfect is that?), one called Reading, and my favorite, Flying over London, that are all nothing more or less than a lovely experience packed into a few pages. It’s magic, really.

I recommend reading Virginia Woolf. I haven’t read a lot of her fiction, but I’ve read a fair amount of her non-fiction, and it’s all fantastic. Especially if you’re a fan, as I am, of essayists – David Sedaris, George Orwell, Diane Ackerman, and especially David Foster Wallace, who wrote like Woolf (and died like her, too), then you should read her essays. I have no doubt there are dozens of collections of her work in various editions, and probably one that collects the good ones out of this book without the obscure ones; but it doesn’t matter, because any collection of her writing is going to be beautiful.

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