Virginia Woolf

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What are the main points in The Common Reader and "How One Should Read a Book" by Virginia Woolf?

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Read what you like, trust yourself, don't rely on critics or scholars to tell you what to read, and learn something from your reading.

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Virginia Woolf's common readers are ordinary readers, people who are not critics and scholars, people who have "common sense" and are untainted by "literary prejudices." They read what they like and read for enjoyment. Woolf advises such readers to lean into that sensibility. Both in the opening and in her final essay, "How Should One Read a Book," she says to read what you like, and, most importantly, to form your own opinions. Don't rely on the critics to tell you what is great. Trust yourself. The critics are often wrong. As she notes in the final essay, critics have to review books at such a fast pace that they can make mistakes.

Woolf advises reading not just "great literature," but what attracts you. You can find gems in the rubbish heap of literature. But one tires of second rate literature, she writes. After awhile, one gravitates to the great writers, those who tell the full truth about life. Many of her Common Reader essays aim to make great writers, such as Defoe and Austen, accessible to the everyday reader.

In her final essay, Woolf also sees reading as a way to become a better writer. Describe a scene yourself, she advises, then see how several great writers handled a similar scene. She also advises setting aside one's own expectations and meeting a writer on his or her own ground, so as to learn all one can from the author. As she puts it:

Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice.

Woolf shows her love of reading in these essays, and encourages readers to embrace reading and make it their own, to trust themselves, and to enjoy what they read, because reading is a deeply rewarding activity.

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In the introduction to her book of literary criticism titled The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf states her own literary philosophy concerning the common reader. She defines the common reader as one who is not as educated and intelligent as the scholar; the common reader is instead one who is only reading for the purpose of pleasure, not scholarship. She defines herself as the common reader and argues that the common reader should be lauded for the reader's creativity. She defines the reader as creative because the common reader actively gathers up "whatever odds and ends he can come by" to piece together, to create, for himself, a whole that makes sense to him. In creating his whole, he pieces together bits of information to create understandings of the world that make sense to him, such as an understanding of a person, an understanding of history, or to create his own theory. What's more, he never ceases to read and never ceases to piece together bits of information to create and recreate his understanding, as we see in her following sentences:

[The common reader] 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 man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument.

Hence, one of her main points is that the common reader is a creative reader. A second main point is that the creative reader creates an original understanding of the world, and this understanding should not be discounted simply due to lack of education or intelligence; this understanding is valuable.

In the book, in the final essay titled "How One Should Read a Book," she further argues for the importance of the common reader's independence. In the opening paragraph, Woolf states, "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." Hence, even in this final essay she continues to argue that it is important for the majority of readers in this world, who are the common readers, to be uninfluenced by the views of scholarship, by "right thinking." Only by remaining independent creative thinkers will common readers continue to be able to make valuable, creative contributions to thought in the world.

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