The Memorable Mrs. Dalloway

I’ve been meaning to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway for ages, and I seem to recall starting several times before putting it down a few pages in. So I was very surprised to see my handwriting in the margins throughout my copy of the book. Apparently, I had read it cover to cover, and apparently, it was all over my head in those days – judging from the notes themselves (high school me wrote down a lot of “huh?” and “umm?”), and also from the fact that I didn’t remember much about the book at all.

So as I went through this time, I had two questions in mind. First, was this book really, in fact, as memorable as a “classic” is supposed to be? And (secondly) if so, why didn’t I remember it?

And I definitely got both answers.

What this book as memorable as a “classic” is supposed to be? Yes. A resounding yes. In particular, I thought it was memorable for two main reasons. First, this book is amazing because it was clearly so ahead of its time in it’s depiction of certain subject matter, like the disturbing depiction of PTSD and negligent practices used to treat it, or the dynamics of class relations in a post-WWI society.

Secondly, I’ll never forget the fresh, modernist style employed in Woolf’s writing. I’ve heard her compared to James Joyce for her use of stream-of-consciousness, but I think that Woolf doesn’t go quite as far as Joyce, and for me it was easier to follow. Mrs. Dalloway, specifically, has a cinematic quality that I haven’t encountered in a novel before (one minute, you’re behind the camera, following a character through the park, then you pass another character on the sidewalk and turn the camera to follow them… until gradually you have an idea of all the characters, all the critical places, the ways their lives intersect). And Woolf’s fantastic style leads me to my second question.

So then, why didn’t I remember it? Well, quite simply, this is not an easy read. It was over my teenage reading level (if its being compared to Joyce, you know it’s not a piece of cake to read). Following this narrative takes a lot more focus and effort than most contemporary best-sellers, and even more than other classics written in the same era. But also, as I mentioned before, Woolf takes on some very heavy and complex themes in this book (e.g. PTSD, class, love, death, time, etc.) and she does it with extreme subtly – there are no grandiose speeches that clarify character perspectives, there are no overt demonstrations of character transformation. The reader has to read closely to pick up on these themes and Woolf’s messages related to each.

All in all, this is a lovely piece of literature and it’s no wonder to me now why it is considered by so many to be an essential work within the Western literary cannon. The last thing I’ll say is that I was inspired to read this book after learning of the A.A. Knopf publishing house’s #howhaveinotreadthis book club. In February, Mrs. Dalloway was their book club pick, and the month’s book club host was Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours (my next read!), and you can still find the book club discussion on youtube!

Buy the books (Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours).
#HowHaveINotReadThis Book Club discussion of Mrs. Dalloway.

On Reading in 2021

Well I’m late in getting this out there, but I wanted to share a few thoughts about reading in 2021. And I don’t just mean my own reading goals or what books are coming out. I mean that now, if ever, seems to me a good time to stop and think about what it means to be reading at this time – in the year following the infamous 2020. What does reading mean in the midst of a global pandemic, following a year of political divides and civil unrest? A year of financial crisis, environmental disasters (as I write this, most of Texas is without power following a crazy snow storm), and racial injustice?

I believed that in this moment, reading means a lot of things. But more than anything else, it means community.

I see a lot of readers setting themselves challenges – a certain number of books, books in certain genres or categories, a particular prize list of books, “50 books by Gemini authors”, fill-out-this-bingo-card-of-books, etc. And all of these are great approaches to reading. And in fact, they are the kind of challenges that I’ve often used to push myself to read more. But recently I’ve realized the limitation of “reading more” versus becoming a better reader.

What do I mean by “better reader”? I don’t mean reading faster. I don’t mean reading James Joyce. I mean connecting reading to real life. I mean connection and community.

In this pandemic, we’ve all experienced some level of isolation. Many of us turned to books as a way of connecting with the outside world, and that is powerful. But it is not as powerful as the dialogue that exists between readers after those books are closed. The way that the literary community has adjusted to our new “virtual” reality has been astounding. Book clubs, lectures, classes, and readings have continue to connect readers virtually. Whole conferences, open mics, and writing programs are being offered in virtual formats. And even though this has been going on for some time, it took me a long time to understand how these types of activities could make me a “better reader”.

Recently, I just so happened to attend a reading with three authors who’s books I’ve read in the past 6 months. And their discussion (on craft, on subject matter, on theme, on process, on the publishing industry, on academia…) has been on my mind all week. For the first time in months, I felt the way that literature, writers, and readers come together to make up a community. And not just any community, but one that is capable of educating, of connecting people, and of fostering real change. If we don’t talk about Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste or Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, then we are limiting the potential our reading has to affect change in our world.

I think that readers deserve better. So this year, 2021, my goal is to read in order to connect. To learn. To change.

Check out some other bookish bloggers who set some great literary goals for 2021:
Fiction Matters: My 2021 Reading Intentions
Sarah’s Bookshelves: January 2021 Books to Read (and Skip)

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