Read Like an American

This column is an exercise in close reading. Reading not only close to the text, but close to my life. I am a compulsively associative reader, and whatever I’m reading has a tendency to spill over into the way I am thinking about my life. The American Reader is kind enough to find space for this sort of musing.

I often read for a place, or a burning question. It wasn’t a coincidence that before I got married I read The Golden Bowl and Middlemarch—two big novels about marriage. I recently picked up A Room of One’s Own because I am beginning to write a novel, and I was wondering if my room and income count. Do I have, quite literally, what Woolf thinks it takes to write fiction? It crossed my mind to see if, adjusted for inflation, I make enough money. What would 500 a year in 1928 be in 2014? Using a Consumer Price Index calculator, it would be 22,378 pounds today, or $37,532.

This is an extremely literal-minded premise, and I’m wary of the literal-minded. Woolf is too, and she quickly complicates her cute premise of room and board. She is not just speaking to writers; she is speaking to women, a room of them at Newnham College, Cambridge. Although only some might go on to write professionally, I imagine all are lifelong readers. “When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigoration of life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not.”

This seems fairly simple, if we presume to know what reality is. But Woolf has provided her own definition of reality, one that speaks more to what my father calls “the inner life,” which runs magically parallel to the literal room and income and brings us to the place where fiction rubs up against reality:

What is meant by “reality”? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable…It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech—and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly….whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent.

That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality. It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us.

To me the defining feature of A Room of One’s Own is its almost perfect balance of the day and the skin of the day, the literal and the figurative. The earlier quotation: “I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigoration of life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not” suddenly seems very generous—extending the invigoration of life to all readers. You don’t need money or a room to read. I read more on subways and buses than I do on the little blue couch in my apartment. But I need the couch for other things, as I need the kitchen for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The literal is a necessary part of what Woolf calls “a habit of freedom” or for those of us not as free as we might like: a habit to desire freedom.

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