umberto's Reviews > The Common Reader: Vol. I

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
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Jun 03, 2010

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bookshelves: literary-criticism
Read in July, 2011

Reading this notable book of essays doesn't disappoint me since I've long awaited it as well as the second volume (instantly placed an order via Kinokuniya Books in Bangkok). In fact, I've already had the 2-paperback Penguin set edited by Rachel Bowlby but I couldn't help thinking I should read "the real thing" as well.

It's my delight to read her "The Common Reader Vol. I" and thus more light to me why she wrote these scintillating essays and thus adopted such a title. It's first topic, "THE COMMON READER" is miraculously short, that is, only two paragraphs (a page and three lines). Surprisingly, she told her readers she had adopted it from such a simple phrase in Dr Johnson's Life of Gray. She's defined such a reader as the one who"is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole -- a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. ...; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result." (pp. 1-2)

Moreover, I can't help wondering why she didn't write anything herself on this great man of letters, critic, essayist and lexicographer and I suspected she might have had her own reason.

I think nearly all of her 21+ essays are worth reading and pondering, however, it depends. I mean it depends on your interest, query or motive in terms of your own literary pursuit. Therefore, I'll say something on "Montaigne" (Essay 6) since he's long been regarded as who wrote the first essays, in other words, as the new literary genre. From her 10 pages and 5 lines, I think we can learn a lot from her exposition and ideas on his life and works. For instance, Montaigne suffered a lot physically and mentally while writing his famous, unique and inspiring topics for posterity. Moreover, some few sentences from "MONTAIGNE" may give you some ideas:

To tell the truth about oneself, to discover oneself near at hand, is not easy. (p. 59)

We can never doubt for an instant that his book was himself. He refused to teach, he refused to preach; he kept saying that he was just like other people. All his efffort was to write himself down, to communicate, to tell the truth, and that is a 'rugged road, more than it seems'. (p. 59)

To communicate is our chief business; society and friendship our chief delights; and reading, not to acquire knoledge, not to earn a living, but to extend our intercourse beyond our own time and province. (p. 64)

You may love Montaigne more if you can find some of his fine translated essays, abridged or complete, in some good bookstores. Read any topic you like and I think reading Montaigne will inspire your views and applications. Enjoy!

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Reading Progress

06/17/2010 "Everything in an essay must be subdued to that end. It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last. (p. 211)""

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