Virginia Woolf: “The reader must leave the dock and mount the bench”

From The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol 5: 1929-1932, Edited by Stuart N. Clarke, Hogarth Press

A scintillating sampling. The essay, in its entirety, can be found at: The Guardian: “Books” Section

…Reading is a very complex art – the hastiest examination of our sensations as a reader will show us that much. And our duties as readers are many and various. But perhaps it may be said that our first duty to a book is that one should read it for the first time as if one were writing it…

…And our first duty as readers is to try and understand what the writer is making from the first word with which he builds his first sentence to the last with which he ends his book. We must not impose our design upon him; we must not try to make him conform his will to ours. We must allow Defoe to be Defoe and Jane Austen to be Jane Austen as freely as we allow the tiger to have his fur and the tortoise to have his shell…

The reader must leave the dock and mount the bench. He must cease to be the friend; he must become the judge. And this second process, which we may call the process of after-reading, for it is often done without the book before us, yields an even more solid pleasure than that which we receive when we are actually turning the pages. During the actual reading new impressions are always cancelling or completing the old. Delight, anger, boredom, laughter succeed each other incessantly as we read. Judgment is suspended, for we cannot know what may come next. But now the book is completed. It has taken a definite shape. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in several different parts. It has a shape, it has a being. And this shape, this being, can be held in the mind and compared with the shapes the essays of other books and given its own size and smallness by comparison with theirs…

From the article “Virginia Woolf on her love of reading,” Saturday, 17, January 2009, The Guardian | Culture | Books.

Virginia Woolf
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