Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read

Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read

"We must have been aware that a novelist, before he can persuade us that his world is real and his people alive, must solve certain questions and acquire certain skill. But until Mr. Lubbock pierced through the flesh and made us look at the skeleton we were almost ready to believe that nothing was needed but genius and ink. The novelists themselves have done little to open our eyes. They have praised the genius and blamed the ink, but they have never, with two famous exceptions, invited us in to see the process at work. Yet obviously there must be a process, and it is at work always and in every novel."

Virginia Woolf, Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read

Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read is a newly packaged collection of some of the most beautiful prose Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) has written on the creative, radical, and rebellious act of reading. Reading requires an existential courage that characterizes Virginia Woolf. 

Virginia Woolf - Genius and Ink

Speaking of the peculiar motivations of the reader, she points to the power of curiosity that will drive us to read with pleasure unless some necessity has forced us to read. She likely agrees with the American literary critic and rhetorician, Kenneth Burke, that bad readers are a result of compulsory education.

Reading with pleasure is deeply nuanced and she offers insight into the complexity of reading by shedding light on the works of several different thinkers. The first essay in the collection sets the tone for what follows. Virginia Woolf carefully distinguishes between the learned man and the reader. 

"A learned man is a sedentary, concentrated, solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart. If the passion for reading conquers him, his gains dwindle and vanish between his fingers."

Virginia Woolf

The learned man is often the professor in academia and his posture trickles down to his students.

Reading to learn is for the purpose of paralyzing knowledge.

The learned man thinks that if it doesn’t move, he can know it better.

If he can be certain of it, then he won’t have to face the fear that comes with uncertainty.

We will never know how vulnerable he is because he knows. He knows because he reads. He reads because he’s scared.

If knowledge doesn’t move, he can control it, conquer it, command it.

Often telling you of the rightness or wrongness of a given subject, the learned man will be the first to define a term and vehemently oppose all uses of it outside the appropriate one.  

"A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading."

Virginia Woolf

The reader is a beautiful creature: alive to the world and attuned to the moving, breathing, pulsing book before her.

She senses the rhythm of the sentences, rising and falling with each page. 

Her aim is not stasis – but life – and life lived abundantly.

The word is flesh and dwells among us.  

She enters the book anxious and afraid, looking for belonging, but she reads because she’s brave. 

Seeing is a kind of touch and she opens every pore on her body when she cries out,  “Open in me a thousand eyes of curiosity.” 

"But there is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season.

Virginia Woolf

There is one constant that reading promises: change. Virginia Woolf teases out this paradox as she offers clarity on how to read in these wildly intoxicating essays. 

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Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read