How should one read a book?

Once upon a time I would read anything and everything. I would read the cereal boxes as I ate before school. I would read whatever book my mother had just finished, whether it be a Sydney Sheldon or Steven King. I would read without prejudice, would read without questioning the author. Hell I would just read to read. Now that I am older I find myself struggling to finish many of the books I think I will enjoy. This change in reading puzzled me and upset me because I could not tell you why this changed happened. All I know is that I now put down more books than I finish. To a lifelong bibliophile this change is horrifying.

This week in class we read an essay by Virginia Wolfe titled How one should read a book. It is a very long essay but oh what an essay it is! In it Wolfe talks about the idea that books are windows into other people’s lives and that as readers we are invited to look in. By doing so we are able to see how others live, eat and interact with one another. Books give us a glimpse into a world we would otherwise never encounter. Wolfe goes on to say that readers should allow the author to take us on a journey we would otherwise miss. This gave me pause and I reflected on her words. You see dear Readers many times I pick up a book with preconceived ideas on how the plot should unfold and when it does not I struggle with the author. I find myself questioning his or her journey path. This makes the book less enjoyable and often times I put a book down because I do not agree with the author’s choice of journey. I would never do this with a real person. I enjoy meeting new people and hearing their stories. I marvel at how other people live and attitudes they have about life. So why do I struggle with books that essentially do the same thing? I am not sure but Wolfe has made me see the light, or at least see the window pane for what it really is.

Not too long ago I tried to read a historical romance with little success. I did not like plot or dialog so I put it down with prejudice. This was wrong; had I taken Wolfe’s advice I would have seen that this book is typical of the genre and that I had to allow the journey/story to happen in the typical genre fashion. I could have enjoyed the book for what it was; a romance book with a story book ending. This semester I have to read Hard Times by Charles Dickens and not being a fan of Dickens I found myself putting the read off.

After reading Wolfe’s essay I picked up the Dickens’ book without prejudice or judgment. I decided to let Dickens tell his story without my wanting to dictate how it should be done. What do you know; I am finding I am enjoying the book! I am looking into the window of Victorian England without certain expectations or notions of how this window should look. I am letting the story take place in front of me without comment. I have never been to Victorian England nor visited the working poor. With Dickens as my guide I will get a chance to see how these people lived and what they lived for. It is kinda exciting to view reading this way again! I hope I can continue to read in this fashion. With practice I hope to be able to pick up any book and enjoy reading as I used to; to read just to see where the journey takes me.

So dear Readers do you find yourselves struggling with authors? Do you ever think you know where the journey path should lead or do you just sit back and let it happen? Have you found your reading has changed over the years, for good or bad? Let me know because I am feeling a little alone about this.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

5 thoughts on “How should one read a book?”

  1. Hi, SariJ! If Woolfe's essay somehow made a change on how you read your Dickens, then I'm definitely going to scout for a copy of that essay! I always find it difficult not to have preconceived ideas when I pick up a new book. The only time that I don't have biases is when I've never heard of the author or of the book and I'm just waiting for myself to be surprised or annoyed after reading that book.


  2. I'm a sit back and see where the story takes me kind of person. One of the reasons I'm not a good book reviewer, it's the overall feeling of the book that either grabs me or doesn't. that said, there are times when something is so badly written, cliched, or predictable that the book is ruined for me. And sometimes I just don't get an author and can't fall into the story. Do know how you feel though, there was a time when I was an avid romance reader and then one day I just couldn't anymore. These days the most romantic I get is Austen or Heyer.


  3. I gotta admit, my experience with books (for the most part) is vastly different than yours, just in that I always finish a book, whether or not I "like" the direction the author has decided to go. Of course, it's very difficult to go into any book with no preconceived notions – especially as a book blogger. But I always think that part of the reader/author "contract" is that you have to TRUST him/her and his/her art enough to bring you to a destination that, if you didn't expect, is still satisfying. If that happens – it's a great book. If not, it's a crappy book, and I'll admit that – but only after I've finished it. Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post!


  4. Heya,I think you and Ms. Wolfe have the right idea. I try very hard to go without prejudice, which is probably why almost none of the reviews I write come with a low rating.Do you think that will change the way you rate books, internally or even on your blog? Do you think more books will come with higher ratings overall?Great post!


  5. Thanks everyone for taking the time to stop by and comment. It means a lot to me.Peter, there should be a link to the essay. Click on the title. If this does not work let me know.Greg you make a very valid point, I need to trust the author to know what he or she is doing and let the story take me away.Annette, if I had just let go and allowed myself to enjoy the romance book for what it was, I may have finished it. I may return to it soon.Melange, you know, I have not thought about my review. Yes I do suppose letting the author do his or her thing will garner better reviews, which may get me more free books to read (yeah like I have the time). School is taking up almost all my free time.


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