on Evaluating Books

I recently completed The Road by Cormac McCarthy. What do I think of the book? Well, the dust has yet to settle.

I’ve learned to take a day or a month to step back from a book, go about normal business, and let “the dust settle.” This patient wait for clarity is a lesson I learned in college from the writings of Virginia Woolf (1882–1941).

I’m no fan of Virginia Woolf, but her understanding of how the mind evaluates books—especially novels and poetry—has taught me patience when I find myself surrounded by the blizzard of details to wait until all has settled on the floor of my mind. Resisting the impulse of immediate critique allows a critical brain-simmer between the period a book is competed and when the book’s value becomes clear. This wait allows for a constructive subconscious process where fragmented thoughts are reshaped into a unified whole.

And Woolf encourages us to critique slowly because this process provides the necessary continuity to evaluate new books to the very best old books. Such is logical. Why would we ever read new books without reference to the superior books of the past?

Enough of me. Here’s how Woolf articulates these ideas:

The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases. Details now fit themselves into their places. We see the shape from start to finish; it is a barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral. Now then we can compare book with book as we compare building with building.

But this act of comparison means that our attitude has changed; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe. Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy; are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease? Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind. There they hang in the mind the shapes of the books we have read solidified by the judgments we have passed on them— Robinson Crusoe, Emma, The Return of the Native. Compare the novels with these—even the latest and least of novels has a right to be judged with the best.

And so with poetry—when the intoxication of rhythm has died down and the splendour of words has faded, a visionary shape will return to us and this must be compared with Lear, with Phèdre, with The Prelude; or if not with these, with whatever is the best or seems to us to be the best in its own kind. And we may be sure that the newness of new poetry and fiction is its most superficial quality and that we have only to alter slightly, not to recast, the standards by which we have judged the old.

-Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?”

2 thoughts on “on Evaluating Books

  1. Thanks for posting this. It’s a great reminder for all of us who read and review a lot of books. I know my initial tendency is to write my review as soon as possible, so I don’t forget anything. However, I’ve found that taking a bit of extra time allows me to better understand the intent of the author and produce a much more thoughtful and insightful review.

  2. Tony,

    I just started reading An Uncommon Union recently and noticed it in your pile of books there. I am only a few chapters in, but I was curious as to what you thought of the book. Pretty interesting so far…

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