I Am Afraid of Virginia Woolf (and I kinda like it)

Let’s get competitive: who’s got the biggest reading list for the summer? How many books are you planning on catching up on during these beautiful summer months? A handful? One a week? Two a week? As many as you can while feeling like it’s still “vacation,” or are you just going to nix the whole idea of relaxing and camp out in the library?

Summer means it is book list season -–  we get to dig out those grubby, scribbled, and crossed-out lists we’ve penned in the back of planners or Moleskines or tacked to our bulletin boards, the lists detailing the books we’ll read “when we have time,” i.e. not living off coffee and discourse alone, and actually read a few things not assigned for work or school.  I personally have a big old pile I’m working through (I’m the person who wants to read the whole library plus). I’m trying to insert myself into the world of fiction writers, and I have it in my head that my number one duty as such is to read everything, all the time, and be able to talk about it at least semi-intelligently. In lieu of taking any classes this summer, I just want to read and read and read. I want to stuff the entire history of fiction into my head and let it stew there. I want my work to be broken open again after a year of intensive, extremely productive, study of fiction in this MFA program. I want to feel refreshed and energized and excited and like I’m one of a healthy, scrambling, vivacious mob of writers.

In short, I want these books to make me a better writer.

Last week, Jen wrote a great post that included plenty of snark at Fifty Shades of Grey and the thought-provoking question of what makes a story good. I’d like to poke a little further and ask instead: what makes a story good for you?

I’m thinking about this because, looking at the growing stack of hardcovers on my desk, I feel like the titles are a little mismatched. It ranges from classic canonical stuff I’ve never gotten around to (Chekhov, Carver, Munro) to books that I feel like everyone in this MFA program can talk about except for me (Don Delillo, Aimee Bender), a few volumes on personal interests like critical pedagogy and local food systems, and some other old favorites. Essentially, Virginia Woolf sits sandwiched between Robert Heinlein and bell hooks and I wonder about what it all means.

The Waves was the first book on my booklist this summer. I started there. I’m not sure why. I’m not too much of a sadist, but I suppose I wanted to dive into the nitty-gritty right off the bat. No excuses. Play hard. Other Nike slogans, etc. It’s a hefty volume, and dense as all get-out. The novel follows from birth to death (more or less) the lives of six people, three men and three women, as they negotiate their lives and think much too hard about things. It is formatted as a series of long monologues; each character “speaks” in turn, in the first person, musing about the state of their lives and death and love and art and (I think) waves.  When I was halfway through, I told a friend that it made no goddamn sense, but that I wanted to keep reading anyway. My feeling toward the classics is that even if I don’t like it, I should try reallyreallyreally hard to finish it because it will somehow be good for me even if I don’t know it at the time, like a series of vaccinations or eating quinoa. I had a feeling that this was a book that would be “good for me,” even if I didn’t love it from page one.

My current pile. Woolf still lurks.

So I read it. I read the whole freaking thing. I still don’t really know what it is about (besides waves). There were piles upon mountains of quotes and and allusions, references to things I didn’t get. Apparently, being a banker’s son blows. There is a lot less sex than I was hoping. Everyone is creepily obsessed with poor Percival, who doesn’t get to talk (though if he did, he’d probably just complain that he’s got really weird friends). Some people die — is that a spoiler? Anyway, I’m not sure at all that I liked it. At all. In fact, I might hate it, for reasons I can’t even express yet. But I have an overwhelming feeling that it is A Good Book, and I still feel like reading it is Good For Me. The language was so layered, the narrative structure so unique and strange and jarring, the history so evident and heavy  in every line. It was frustrating, the whole reading experience, because I felt like there was something huge that I was missing, some key to unlocking the piece that I just couldn’t get at. It’s a mosaic puzzle, the annoying kind where all the pieces are the same shape but add up to something even more beautiful if I can just figure it out (or maybe just mash the pieces together until they do fit. Which I do sometimes. Don’t judge) Did I think it was good? Who knows. But I have an inescapable sense that The Waves has something incredibly important and earth-shattering to teach me about writing. I am almost positive that I’m going to read it again before the summer is out.

I know this especially because right after I read The Waves, I decided to reward myself with some comfier reading – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein, one of the classic scifi authors (he also wrote Starship Troopers and A Stranger in a Strange Land). I love The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  I’ve read it more than once. It has political intrigue and clever language and a talking computer named Mike (also, lasers).  It is a book I like. But reading it after The Waves? I can tell that it’s not a book that is good for me to read. I don’t learn anything from it. My brain is relatively switched off when I read it; it’s an easy work to process because I can see, at a glance, how all its working parts are laid out. How the puzzle pieces fit together is very, very obvious. Not in a bad way, with no bearing on whether or not I think it is a “good” book. Clearly I do, or I wouldn’t read it more than once. You should too! Then you’ll know what “tanstaafl” means and we can make cool jokes about it.  However, I didn’t walk away from that book feeling buzzed and weird like I did after The Waves. I could go another couple years before I read Heinlein again, but I want to reread The Waves, like, right now. It has some secrets I haven’t discovered yet, and I’m desperate to do so. I need to figure out what makes that book tick. I want to see its innards and tell my fortune in them.  Etc. Weird metaphor’s over. You get the point.

I’m interested in this distinction between books I think are good and books I think are good for me because it’s a relatively new one for me. Due to grad school and my own (say it ain’t so) maturation as a writer, I’m starting to be less reliant on language like “good” and “bad” and “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” and more on the mechanics of a published work, how it’s working, and giving it the benefit of the doubt that it is working, in some way, and it’s up to me as a student of writing to figure out what that is. I should be an open book (HA) when it comes to reading, and steal as many tricks as possible. Even from books that don’t click for me the first time. Maybe those are the ones that have a harder, but hard-earned, reward for us at the end, and absolutely require that second/third/frustrating fourth read.

Barkers, when you’re deciding what books to read in your free time, do you make a distinction between books you like and books you know will be good for you to read? Should we? Which books do you consider to be your literary medicine?

PS: if anyone wants to explain The Waves to me that would be awesome thanks.


  • Fitz says:

    Laura, I’m in the exact same boat. Despite my flippant Bark post last week, I really did buy a copy of “Ulysses” and intend to read it this summer, really just because everyone talks about it as you know, a hallmark of the English language and maybe one of the greatest books ever written. Stuff like that. I think it will also be good for me because it’s supposed to be hard and dense and you have to work to untangle the language and at the end you’re more likely to be able to say “I read it” than “I understood it” but you can still feel good. (The fact that I haven’t started it yet is irrelevant; once I really make thesis progress, I will brave Joyce.)
    Anyway, that’s how I feel about most of my summer reading list (which also includes Moby-Dick), but I don’t know that just because a book is a classic it means we have to slog through it. In your case, it seems like The Waves has a lot of merit and turned out to be a good investment of time/energy/etc, but I’m willing to bet that some of “The Classics” just…aren’t.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I think a good book always involves struggle, me as a reader deeply engaged with the thing, flipping pages back, reading forward and then going back again, sitting up in my chair, really reading. And I’ve got to be into it, excited about it, feeling that something is really going on here, even if I don’t quite get it or know what the hell it is. The fact that a book’s a classic doesn’t matter to me. I’m bored out of my mind by plenty of classics. I need some kind of spark, something that makes me sit up and really WANT to struggle. A book has to speak to me on some level — whatever that means — to get me involved.

    Then, like you, I want to read that book again. And again.

    In almost every way, the only books worth reading are books worth reading more than once.

    • Laura says:

      Sam, I was really counting on you to explain The Waves to me.

      I definitely agree with both you and Fitz that the designation of “classic” does not have merit on the book’s goodness (oh dear — or worth, I suppose). I’ve had my bad experiences too. But I think something ABOUT the classics makes me look a little harder for their respective worth, something about the history of it being a classic, having something wider to recommend.

      But not James Joyce. I have picked up “Dubliners” 3-4 separate times and tried to get through it and I. Just. Can’t. So he’s not one for the pile this summer.

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