Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What's the Deal with Virginia Woolf?

 One of the days that I was at jury duty last week, we were given a 3 hour break. I was downtown, so of course I went to the main library. Who wouldn't spend all morning at the library? I found one of the books on my list that has about 108847 holds on it at the Berkeley Public Library and read about half of it at the library. I also found a book on the new books that I didn't have on my list, which is funny- serendipity brought me to the book- and the book is about serendipitiously finding books. The books have nothing in common except that randomly, about half way through, they both spend a chapter dwelling on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. I get it- this is an important book. Seminal, probably. It's one of those classics that I haven't read and probably should. There are entire courses taught about her, plays and movies asking who's afraid of her, and like, I don't know, gazillions of women inspired by her. But the two books are NOT about Virginia Woolf, and it's like the authors needed somewhere to publish their thoughts on Virginia Woolf or they wouldn't be able to sleep at night, so their editors humored them. Let me tell you something: it doesn't make me want to read anything else by Virginia Woolf, if that's what they were going for. It just made me skim those parts.

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I am not a huge Rebecca Solnit fan. (She did just go up greatly in my esteem, however, when I went to her site and noted that amazon is not one of the places linked to purchase her books.) I remember reading one of her books many years ago- maybe Savage Dreams- and really liking it, and then being steadily more disappointed every time I picked something up. Sorry, it's true. However, Solnit was a speaker at the recent Berkeley Book Festival, and Men Explain Things to Me was prominently displayed at the author's books tables. I didn't buy it- it's a tiny volume and I felt like it was a risk that I wouldn't like it- but I added it to my list- who DOESN'T want to read about mansplaining? (Oh, men.)

It's a fabulous book. Rebecca Solnit? I take it back. You're amazing. In 2008, before the coining of the term "mansplaining," Solnit wrote an essay for TomDispatch (which I had never heard of) with the eponymous title. You don't have to read the book, but do read the essay here. With humor, but also with persuasive fortitude, she explains what it's like to be a woman, even a successful, accomplished woman:
"Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I’m not holding my breath."
She makes links between this silencing and violence- the seeing of women as less-than-human and the ability to destroy them and not think twice. It's a valuable and empowering (for women) argument. Hopefully it's a valuable and humbling argument for men. Hopefully they read this book.

I have two main arguments and a quibble with this book. First is the aforementioned Virginia Woolf chapter. Um, what's it doing there, Solnit? We're friends now, in my mind, so I feel I can ask that. It doesn't fit, I want it gone. Second, there are these nice images at the beginning of each chapter by an artist who then gets a chapter that also doesn't fit- Ana Teresa Fernandez. The literary criticism and the art theory are nice, but maybe belong in another book. The quibble- the feminism here is brilliant. Sometimes Solnit backtracks though, apologizes. Says things like "I'm not talking about all men," or "men are making good strides as allies" (my paraphrases). Yes! Absolutely! But in doing this, she's been silenced again. I recommend this book, even if you read just a few of the essays. Read the essay on how marriage equality threatens the . Read the essay on colonialism. Or read the whole thing and tell me what I missed in that Virginia Woolf essay.

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I found The Shelf on the "New" books shelf near the front of the library. I think Phyllis Rose would have liked this- she closes her book with the hope that her book "sends [people] onto the stacks of libraries to find favorites of their own and to savor the beauties of what I hope is not a vanishing ecosystem." As someone who visits the library at least once every two weeks and sometimes more, and who conquered #onlineschool because she believes the same thing, I have a kindred spirit here. (Oh, and she was a professor at my alma mater. The in-person one.)

The premise of The Shelf is a sweet one: Rose decided to pick a shelf of fiction at random and read all of the books on it. She came up with some arbitrary rules for herself and landed on the LEQ-LES shelf at the New York Society Library- a small, members-only library. She didn't end up reading *all of the books on the shelf, but a set number by each author. The shelf is as much a story of a year of reading and literary criticism as it isa story of the authors and their works. I ended up adding only one of the books to my list but may go back and add another.

Rose was an English Professor. She is a literary critic. She also just loves to read. She is both non-sentimental (she reads on a Kindle!!) and sentimental- she checked out a couple books on the shelf knowing that meant that they wouldn't be weeded for a couple of years, even though she didn't really plan on reading them. Saved- the books were saved! I really liked this book, and I liked Rose's commitment to the project that she had set for herself. I never did finish my project to finish all the books that I haven't read on my shelf, though I've been MUCH better about not buying them. I also liked Rose's honesty- she's an honest literary critic: "There is no way to read a text putting aside who one is and what one has experienced. In this sense, as many twentieth century literary critics came to understand, every reading of a book is the creation of a new book. Every reading is a misreading." That might be a little pomo for you, but when you read The Shelf, it makes sense. Rose even reads one book (that she doesn't like very much) a few times in a few translations, and at the end, reads it again, realizing that she's a new person.

Like Solnit, Rose grapples with the issue of male privilege, this time in the realm of literature. In the chapter "Women and Fiction: A Question of Privilege," she takes on the question of what it means to be a "woman writer," or a woman reader, or to be taken seriously be Readers- whether easy going readers or by Readers of import. She cites a study done in England- "Between [the ages of] 20 and 40, many men we talked to openly showed an almost complete lack of interest in reading which drew them into personal introspection, or asked them to engage with the family and the domestic sphere." And yet, or because of this, literature by women which deals with this kind of material is considered trivial. And women who write about this are looked down on- they must be privileged- they have time and money to do write about that- isn't there something more important? More manly, perhaps? Well, maybe. As Rose writes, "many of us- male and female- learned to read men's novels as though they were larger and deeper than novels by women." Though Rose's book is pretty much nothing like Solnit's, reading them back to back led me to do a lot of head nodding and comparison drawing. As she says, we can't take the reading out of our lives.

There was a lot more about this book that I liked. Not everyone will like this book. I think readers will like this book, but not all readers will like it- Extra Serious readers might not, and readers who don't want to think about what they read certainly will not. But I liked it- it was both funny and serious, poignant and sharp. And Phyllis, if you're out there, this Common Reader thinks you're swell.

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