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How to Read a Book, According to Virginia Woolf

Ellen Gutoskey discusses Virginia Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?” Gutoskey begins by noting that the title is a question, not a prescriptive statement:

“The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions,” she says.

The article includes a link to a PDF of the essay, if you’re interested in following along.

The Greatest Literary Alliance of All Time: You, the Author, and the Character

“Lisa Zeidner Asks Us to Think Deeply About Point of View in Fiction.”

I see reading a work of literature as an exchange between reader and writer. (See reader-response criticism.)

In this exploration of point of view in fiction, Lisa Zeidner takes that theory one step further by looking at now a dynamic due (author and reader) but a dynamic threesome (author, reader, and character). “It’s in that bleeding or overlap between the entities—choose your metaphor, or your ink color—that empathy lives,” she writes.

Reading Pathways: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

When you come across an article that seems to have been written just for you, what do you do? You read it, of course.

I’ve read a lot of quotations from Terry Pratchett and much praise for his work. But after learning that Discworld isn’t really a series—in the sense of a collection in which one book follows another, in a narrative and logical line—but rather a group of independent but inter-related books, I had no idea where to start. Here Aisling Twomey answers my question, as if she were responding specifically to me.

Can Historians Be Traumatized by History?

There’s been a lot written about how experiencing violence and atrocities first-hand can lead to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Here James Robins go one step further, to ask people if people, such as therapists or historians conducting research, can “be traumatized by something experienced only secondhand.”

Annotation: How to Get the Most Our of Your Books

With a blog called Notes in the Margin, I was, you can bet, all over this article about annotation books. But this piece isn’t about how to make notations in your books to help you remember significant points.

Instead, Joshua C. Craig discusses how book annotations originated and what their functions have been over time. Beginning before the invention of the printing press and continuing into the present, when annotations may help students discussing literature on a pandemic-inspired Zoom meeting, he considers three functions of annotations:

chunking, connecting, and/or signaling. Annotations can serve more than one of these purposes at a time but will always serve at least one of these three purposes, in addition to any other reasons the annotator has marked the section.

Craig ends by encouraging us to write out annotations as fully as possible, following a college professor’s advice to “write your annotations so that a stranger picking up your book will be able to understand them.” That stranger may be a much older you, who has no memory of what you meant by cryptic symbols or words jotted in the margin. Craig says he uses “sticky notes and note cards to expand when needed.”

Annotate This: On Footnotes

This article is by Ed Simon, “Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books.” (Back when I started my web site, I wanted the name Marginalia.com, but it was already taken. Marginalia means “things written in the margin.”)

Simon focus on the use of footnotes here. “Footnotes can be an exercise in arid, sober, boring credit-giving, but some of the most dynamic monographs have the best stuff squired away in the footnotes.” 

After much discussion of the use of footnotes in religious texts of ages past, Simon turns to their use in novels, which “make use of the footnote’s literary possibilities, allowing parallel narratives to take place in the margins, unseen narrators to comment, digressions, disagreements, and debates to occur within the white space of the page.”

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

The Case for Teaching Depressing Books

High school English teacher Sahar Mustafah writes that her students often ask when they’re going to read happy books.

Young people, quite naturally, equate “happy” with a safe, uneventful existence. Genocide, sexual assault, poverty, racism, climate change—it’s hard to find any reason to be excited about reading these subjects as a plot line. And the experience can be just as hard for a teacher to present to students.

“But I pose that books containing difficult issues or trauma are good for our youth. In fact, they’re downright essential,” Mustafeh counters. Her reasoning?

literature can increasingly shape empathetic, socially-conscious individuals. Shielding students from challenging texts because “there’s so much bad stuff already going on” only seeks to reinforce systems of power and inequity.

Why We Turn to Jane Austen in Dark Times

Jane Hadlow:

I’d argue that her power to connect with us in hard times arises not because her retired life shielded her from grief, pain, and fear—but because she knew very well what it was like to feel vulnerable, exposed, and anxious about the well-being of those she cared about. 

Hadlow concludes: “What Austen really prizes is resilience” and “the self-discipline she insists upon as a means to survive” during hard times.

Why Anxious Readers Under Quarantine Turn to “Mrs. Dalloway”

Perhaps you prefer Virginia Woolf to Jane Austen. Evan Kindley, a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a visiting assistant professor at Pomona College, discusses Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, “set in 1923, five years on from the global influenza pandemic that killed somewhere between fifty and a hundred million people.”

Woolf’s vivid description of a crowded metropolis right now, when our own cities’ streets lie empty, feels like something out of a fantasy novel. Yet Clarissa’s joie de vivre is mixed with a sense of latent dread: “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”

Dispatches from a Pandemic

This is the landing page for a series of several articles from many authors commenting on the current health pandemic. The articles are from the April 13, 2020, print issue of The New Yorker.

The Best Australian Crime Fiction, recommended by Emma Viskic

I’m including this article not just because it recommends five books. Novelist Emma Viskic and interviewer Cal Flyn also discuss the significance of crime fiction and the specious distinctions between crime fiction and literary fiction.

What Is the Great American Novel?

“What is the Great American Novel? Its existence as a singular volume is surely a myth, but what is the concept of the Great American Novel?” Annika Barranti Klein examines the history of the concept of the Great American Novel and tries to figure out what the term actually means.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Author News Last Week's Links Literary Criticism Literary History Publishing

Literary Links

These are some of the literature-related articles from around the web that caught my eye over the past week.

Quartzy    HALF OF ALL TRANSLATED BOOKS IN THE US COME FROM JUST NINE COUNTRIES

This one caught my eye because I’m trying to read more books translated from other languages this year. 

The good news: “In 2018, 632 never-before-translated books of fiction and poetry were published in the United States. It’s the fifth straight year the US has published more than 600 translations, quite the feat for a country that has long been accused of having an insular book culture.”

The bad news: “Of the nearly 5,800 books of fiction and poetry translated from 2008 to 2018, more than half were from just nine countries, seven of which are in Europe (the exceptions are Japan and China).”

These statistics are significant if one’s aim in reading more translated works is to learn about new cultures. European books, even though from other countries, are still western-civilization centric. Yes, they will teach us about other cultures, but not about the other cultures that are most different from out own, specifically eastern and African. This article points out that “only one book each was translated from Benin, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mali, and Myanmar.”

The New York Times   A Glimpse of Virginia Woolf’s Original Manuscript for ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

A look at how “the ‘big’ book she [Virginia Woolf] thought she should write was not really the book she wanted to write. The transition for her was understanding that a book about an outwardly ordinary woman on an ordinary day in London could be every bit as ‘big’ as the books about wars and revolutions.”

The Guardian   Nell Freudenberger: ‘Like many women I believed I didn’t have the right kind of brain for science’

The author of the recently released novel Lost and Wanted laments “the way girls and women are still so often held back from studying science.”

The New York Times    When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished

It was like a plot from one of her own novels: On the evening of Dec. 4, Agatha Christie, carrying nothing but an attaché case, kissed her daughter good night and sped away from the home in England that she shared with her husband, Col. Archibald Christie. (He was having an affair with a younger woman; the public did not know this, but his wife definitely did.) No one knew where Christie was for almost two weeks.

Literary Hub   What the 39,933 Items on Peter Matthiessen’s Computer Mean for the Art of Biography

Lance Richardson, currently working on a biography of writer Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014) discusses the challenges of what he calls “a bifurcated archive” comprising both physical items and digital files. The differences between these two types of materials “will have inevitable effects on the shape and form of tomorrow’s histories” and biographies.

The Seattle Times   ‘No-No Boy’ went from unknown book to classic thanks to UW Press and Asian American writers. Now, it’s at the center of a controversy

This is a local story for me, but it has wider interest because of its tie to copyright law and the David-and-Goliath issue of a small academic (University of Washington) press vs.the publishing giant Penguin Random House. The book in question also keeps alive the story of the internment of Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II. The author, John Okada, was “a Seattle native and University of Washington graduate who served in the U.S. Army during the war, even as his family was forced to relocate to an internment camp.”

The New York Times   Naomi Wolf’s Publisher Delays Release of Her Book

The recent controversy over “Outrages” highlights the perils that publishers face in a competitive market where juicy nonfiction books that feature explosive claims can command the highest sales but are sometimes not vigorously fact-checked or vetted in advance of publication.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book Recommendations Fiction Film Literary Criticism Literary History Monday Miscellany Reading

Monday Miscellany

It’s been a good week for literature-relating reading.

The Top 10 Charles Dickens Books

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

Robert Gottlieb, author of Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, explains why he thinks these are Dickens’s 10 best books:

  1. Great Expectations
  2. Our Mutual Friend
  3. David Copperfield
  4. Bleak House
  5. Little Dorrit
  6. Oliver Twist
  7. Nicholas Nickleby
  8. Dombey and Son
  9. The Pickwick Papers
  10. The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens

The Education of Virginia Woolf

At The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz uses the publication of volume 6 of The Essays of Virginia Woolf  as the springboard to a discussion of Virginia Woolf as discerning reader of literature: “Taken as a whole, Woolf’s essays are probably the most intense paean to reading—an activity pursued not for a purpose but for love—ever written in English.”

The multivolume compilation The Essays of Virginia Woolf has been out of print for decades, and readers have been awaiting the conclusion of this expertly edited and lavishly annotated scholarly edition of Woolf’s complete essays for nearly 25 years. At last the project is finished with this, the sixth volume, which was published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Woolf’s death last year. This installment, which gathers the pieces she wrote from 1933 until her suicide in 1941, poignantly illuminates the effort and ideals that informed her critical writing. Woolf became a financially secure novelist in 1928 with the publication of Orlando, yet she continued to toil at her relatively unremunerative reviews. For example, by cross-referencing her letters and diaries, Stuart N. Clarke, this volume’s editor, reveals that in November 1936, Woolf began work on her lapidary, psychologically astute, tender essay on Edward Gibbon. That project demanded that she read his journals, letters, and the six drafts of his autobiography—and reread the six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the work that naturally forms the cynosure of her piece. She labored at this review through the winter and spring of 1937 (“I’ve spent all the morning, every morning, writing; every evening reading. I had to dash through Gibbon”), until its publication that May. For this staggering quantity of work, she was paid 28 pounds, equal to something like $2,500 today—a nice lump sum, but a minuscule per-hour rate.

Famous authors: Why their biggest fans love to hate them

Declaring “the more beloved a particular book becomes, the more responsibility the author has to treat their readers with respect and understanding,” the folks at hypable list authors they love to hate:

  • J. K. Rowling
  • Suzanane Collins
  • George R. R. Martin
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • John Green

On Bad Endings

On The New Yorker‘s Page-Turner blog Joan Acocella declares:

Many of the world’s best novels have bad endings. I don’t mean that they end sadly, or on a back-to-work, all-is-forgiven note (e.g. “War and Peace,” “The Red and the Black,” “A Suitable Boy”), but that the ending is actually inartistic—a betrayal of what came before. This is true not just of good novels but also of books on which the reputation of Western fiction rests.

Read why she hates the endings of these well known novels:

  • David Copperfield
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Song of the Lark
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Hollywood’s 25 Most Powerful Authors

The Hollywood Reporter offers its list of:

those living authors who have been most successful in shepherding their books from page to screen, balancing success in publishing (total output, sales, best-sellers) and in Hollywood (completed adaptations, projects in development, screenwriting and producing credits) while accounting for cultural influence. More power to them.

Yes, some of the big names—Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, George R. R. Martin—are there at the top of the list, but some of the names farther down might surprise you.