Books are an important physical presence around anyone who feels reading is a major part of living. I can spend a lot of time just gazing at my shelves wondering what I should read or reread next or simply enjoying the company of my books. Of course, no book was created in isolation but produced by someone who was influenced by reading countless other books. The traditional hub for many great writers to discover books that inspire and inform them has been the library. This year The London Library which is the world's largest independent library with more than a million books and periodicals in its collection is turning 175 years old. “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” is a compact collection of pieces by great writers such as Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, EM Foster and the poet Leigh Hunt – all of whom were active members of The London Library. They contemplate the experience of being committed writers and readers who share the same wonder, joy and excitement we all feel when staring at a shelf filled with books.  

It's surprising how relevant some of the arguments and questions raised in these pieces still feel today. I suppose this is because the experience of being an enthusiastic reader never changes. George Eliot muses upon the profession of writing in her essay 'Authorship' and how writing for a living can cause someone to compromise their vision and morals due to commercial pressure. She considers the cultural impact of great writing against the degree to which its valued by society. These feel like the same arguments that are made in current articles on how authors are woefully underpaid. Virginia Woolf addresses the issue of criticism and urges readers to come to books with no preconceived notions or expectations about the text: “Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” In her typically ingenious way she meditates upon the interplay between the physical world around us, the imaginative world the author places us in and how these intermingle.

Charles Dickens' letter to George Eliot is filled with praise for her first publication “Scenes of Clerical Life” yet he shows himself to be incredibly astute guessing in a friendly manner that she is not male as her pen names suggests but female (something which was not publicly known at the time). Leigh Hunt contemplates his passion for the books around him, the manner in which books are consumed and how they are a touchstone to the past. He shows a certain snobbishness about different kinds of literature and how access to books is connected with privilege (this was certainly true when he was alive in the mid-1800s.) In a way all book lovers can relate to, he goes through some of his prize possessions on his bookshelves developing a fetishism for the beauty of certain books. He also covets the books other readers' possess remarking: “I cannot see a work that interests me on another person's shelf, without a wish to carry it off.”

EM Forster wrote his piece about The London Library itself at a time directly before WWII when he was aware of how precarious books and the inheritance of knowledge was in the face of rampant destruction. In this bleak time he ardently remarked about the library that “It is a symbol of civilization. It is a reminder of sanity and a promise of sanity to come.” It's comforting to know that The London Library is still thriving. This week from May 5th-8th to celebrate their 175 year a number of readings and events called Words in the Square are taking place.

This book is a fantastic touchstone for readers and lovers of literary culture exploring from different angles the way literature plays an active part of daily life. It makes a wonderful companion to Ali Smith's recent book of stories and collection of testaments about the importance of libraries Public Library. In the preface to each piece in “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” there is a short fascinating paragraph about each author's relationship with The London Library – for instance, when Virginia Woolf joined she gave her occupation as “Spinster”. These pieces reinforce how important the library was for these writers and this anthology is a wonderful celebration of our literary culture.

Home of Leonard and Viriginia Woolf

Home of Leonard and Viriginia Woolf

My boyfriend surprised me last Friday evening with a weekend away as a birthday present. I was told to meet him at Charing Cross station and we’d go from there. We got on a train and it was quite dark by the time we arrived in Burwash, Sussex where we stayed at Pelham Hall, a beautiful modern B&B. It’s a 14th century house that’s been lovingly decorated by its friendly proprietors. It’s a strange feeling arriving somewhere in the dark because it was only in the morning I saw what a sprawling picturesque countryside surrounded the place. Living in overpopulated London it’s easy to forget sometimes that a short train ride away there are such rural places. A short walk away from Pelham Hall over a field is Bateman’s which was Rudyard Kipling’s Jacobean home. We hiked by to see this impressive property from the exterior, but of course I was much more interested in visiting the nearby properties inhabited by the Bloomsbury group.

Virginia's desk

Virginia's desk

The first place we visited on Saturday morning was Monk’s House, Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s long-time rural residence in the tiny village of Rodmell. Visitors are only able to walk through the ground floor rooms of this 17th century cottage including the study with Leonard’s odd collection of shells and Virginia’s favourite reading chair, a dining room, a staircase with a pile of books on every stair (apparently upon Leonard’s death there were over 6000 books in the house) and a kitchen partially screened off with a portrait of the Woolf’s cook. There is also a greenhouse at the entrance of the house which has hanging grape vines. We were able to purchase some of these grapes from the shop which only asked for a donation. At the back of the house is Virginia’s bedroom housing artwork by Vanessa Bell and a bed which has a view of the garden. The garden itself is quite large and impressive with many flowers, fruit trees and vegetables growing, a pond and a scattering of statues. One section of the garden has busts of Leonard and Virginia next to which is the tree under which her ashes were scattered. At the end of the garden is a small structure with photographs of the Woolfs and the many guests they entertained at the cottage which they inhabited from 1919 until Leonard’s death in 1969.

Virginia's bookshelf - many are Shakespeare

Virginia's bookshelf - many are Shakespeare

Guide reading from Mrs Dalloway

Guide reading from Mrs Dalloway

Pears and the door to Virginia's bedroom

Pears and the door to Virginia's bedroom

Fireplace in bedroom painted by Vanessa Bell

Fireplace in bedroom painted by Vanessa Bell

What really brought the house alive were the many guides sat throughout the property who were brimming with enthusiasm to talk about the history of the estate and stories about the Woolfs. At one point, a volunteer gave an animated reading from Mrs Dalloway in the garden. It was amazing to learn that almost all of the furniture and decorations in the house are the originals including some famous portraits of Virginia and a shelf of Virginia’s books. What a fantastic experience to come in such close contact with the place where she spent so much time when “The Waves” is a novel which has meant so much to me throughout my life.

Tree under which Virginia's ashes were scattered

Tree under which Virginia's ashes were scattered

Pond next to Charleston House with reclining statue

Pond next to Charleston House with reclining statue

Next we drove to nearby Charleston House which was the long-time residence of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. This was a much larger establishment and it was thrilling to take the tour through the farmhouse as nearly every room is painted in Grant and Bell’s distinctive styles. The wallpaper, bookcases and furniture are covered in their own colourful designs. Of course, paintings fill nearly every wall ranging from the works of famous artists to local friends. Even the lampshades in some of the lower rooms were decorated with Vanessa’s son’s distinctive colander shades which scatter drops of the fading daylight across the ceiling. It’s easy to imagine how such a large, lively residence could be the central point for gatherings of artists. Although I’m familiar with the broad facts about Virginia’s life, I knew comparatively little about the complex relationships between Duncan and Vanessa and the many other members of the Bloomsbury group. What a complicated state of affairs! I didn’t watch the recent drama series ‘Life in Squares’ about the group, but that evening we downloaded and watched the first episode. It’s a rather silly dramatization, but good indulgent fun.

Before heading out to a pub for dinner we made a final stop at the nearby Berwick Church which contains many murals painted by Duncan and Vanessa. It was interesting to see the style of paintings – so much more realistic than many religious scenes with soldiers and likenesses of members of their immediate family included.

Murals by Duncan Grant

Murals by Duncan Grant

Berwick Church

Berwick Church

Mural by Vanessa Bell

Mural by Vanessa Bell

Old video where I explain how much I love Virginia Woolf's The Waves

I had the most fantastic weekend and it’s given me a renewed love for Virginia Woolf’s work. I hope to go back and read the Persephone Books edition of her Diaries later this year after I finish reading all the submissions for the Green Carnation Prize. I feel really lucky and grateful to have had this experience. It was an especially thoughtful present.

Have you ever visited Monk’s House or another residence of one of your favourite writers? Did it change how you read them?

Bateman's (Kipling's Home)

Bateman's (Kipling's Home)

Butterflies on Monk's House stairwell

Butterflies on Monk's House stairwell

Inspiration for Woolf's fiction Flush

Inspiration for Woolf's fiction Flush

Forster & TS Eliot at Monk's House

Forster & TS Eliot at Monk's House

Holding The Waves and grapes from the Woolf's garden - they tasted sweet!

Holding The Waves and grapes from the Woolf's garden - they tasted sweet!

Looking in the window of the Monk's house sitting room

Looking in the window of the Monk's house sitting room

It's a bold challenge to translate the life and writings of Virginia Woolf into dance. When I was at university I took a course which investigated how prose could be translated into drama. I wanted to take on the challenge of trying to make my favourite novel “The Waves” into a play, but it seemed impossible. Any attempt to convey the vibrancy of Woolf's writing in a physical form felt flat. I was proven wrong several years later when The National Theatre and Katie Mitchell successfully adapted “The Waves” into a play which effectively expressed the progression of life and subconscious speech in this novel through a clever use of sets, staging and mixed media. Wayne McGregor and The Royal Ballet have created an even bigger project which conveys the feeling of Woolf's life and writing through ballet. It's a heartfelt, dramatic and stunningly beautiful production.

The ballet is split into three parts. Each is inspired by a particular text: “Mrs Dalloway,” “Orlando,” and “The Waves” respectively. These three acts all have extremely different tones in their style of dance, lighting and music. But each is suffused with a sensation of Woolf's grappling to find an adequate form of expression for the world around her. The first act 'I Now, I Then' begins with a recording of Woolf's voice speaking about the nature of language, how it is under a continuous process of reinvention and only comes to have meaning when reformed. Through the dancers' movement and use of shape this sense of process comes through. The sounds and projections of photos of London give an atmosphere of Woolf’s life. There is a scene of men at the warfront, but I had the sense that these men were projections of the public’s consciousness at the time with thoughts of war consuming everyone’s thoughts. Throughout much of this and other scenes we see dancer Alessandra Ferri as a kind of Woolf figure wandering through scenes observing and interacting. There is a sense she is a part of this world, but at a remove struggling to find her place within it and find a way to appropriately represent it.

The second part ‘Becomings’ begins with a feeling of formality with dancers attired in rich gold metallic Elizabethan dress. Just as the novel “Orlando” leaps through time and gender so do the dancers change moving through segments of the stage created with lasers and the sexes become mixed as performers wear genderless flesh-coloured clothing. This section of the production has a much more celebratory feel as the performers feel liberated from the constrictions of place, time, gender. Smoke swirling in the laser beams creates an eerie mirror-effect with the dancer’s movements. It’s as if both the molecular nature of life is being portrayed alongside a grand view of civilization as a whole.

The final part ‘Tuesday’ begins with Gillian Anderson reading the suicide letter Woolf wrote to Leonard. Looming in the background is a large slow-motion video of waves curling and crashing into themselves. Six young dancers emerge mimicking the six characters in “The Waves” who start as children. Gradually, these six are replaced by older dancers and then six more. They fall into pairs or groups as do the voices in the novel sometimes favouring particular individuals and other times coming together as a whole. There is a feeling of these individuals being tossed and turned through life moving through states of joy and sorrow. Most striking are scenes when the dancers come together to hold a pose and it seems like an ardent wish to capture a perfectly articulated expression or moment of being. A melancholy music pervades this part as the dancing figure of Woolf is eventually portrayed as drowning or sinking. The dancers become like characters hovering in the author’s consciousness as they bob up and down in the background shadows.

While watching this production I had to frequently remind myself not to strictly interpret what I was seeing as a narrative, but rather take it in as an expression of feelings inspired by the texts. I don’t often see dance and have only gone to the ballet a few times in my life, but of course I was drawn to seeing this production because of how passionate I feel about Woolf’s writing. As can be seen from the excellent exhibition on Woolf's life at the National Portrait Gallery last summer, the public is also fascinated by the woman herself and this production shows the same preoccupation with Woolf's life. Once I let go of my impulse to “read” what I was seeing and experience the effect of the overall performance I was tremendously moved by it. A lot of care and passion has gone into this production to honour Woolf’s vision. It was a dazzling experience that will stay with me.

The production is played at the Royal Opera House until May 26th 2015. It's being given its first revival from Jan 21-Feb 14th 2017: http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/woolf-works-by-wayne-mcgregor

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It’s not often that I read books a second time for the plain fact that there are so many new ones I want to get to. Sometimes I will recall a particular scene that I found powerful in a book which I’ll flip back to or I might read a particular favourite short story from a collection I read ages ago. But, in general, I’m too greedy to turn back to something I’ve already experienced even though I know I’ll find new meanings when reading a good book again. However, there are some titles I’ve revisited multiple times. In their own ways I find them endlessly rewarding as I get something new from them each time.

 

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

This is by far the book I’ve read the most times in my life. The entire movement of life from childhood to old age perfectly encapsulated in six distinct “voices” speaking out of some subterranean region of consciousness. As I grow older I connect in different ways with the characters at different ages. There is stunning poetry in the prose so it can be enjoyed for its sheet beauty. Or you can reread passages for their depth of thought. It’s the most artful novel I’ve ever read.

 

The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982

More than any other book here, I can flip to any entry in these journals to become immediately immersed in reading about Oates’ thoughts on literature or her philosophical meditations on the state of being. Unlike her beautifully crafted fiction, the thoughts in this book come so directly that their honesty speaks directly to me. Whether luxuriating in her touching descriptions of the natural world or enjoying her thoughts on what she’s reading or other authors she encounters, these journals are a joy to read. Since this only covers a ten year period of her life, I can only hope that Oates and her biographer Greg Johnson will one day return to this project to publish more of her journals.

 

In America by Susan Sontag

When Sontag finished the prologue of this novel she felt she’d created the perfect post-modern story. So she has. It’s a brilliant way to enter into the story of her Polish actress Maryna who travels to America in order to found a utopian community. Something about this novel chimes with me so that I find her search for authenticity and her failure to find it so touching and personal. Sontag was such a precise and rigorous intellectual and I’m endlessly entranced by the portrait she created in this novel.

 

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

Much like my thoughts about Rachel Joyce’s novels recently, this book touches upon the dilemma of imagining parallel lives for yourself. In this instance, without even knowing why exactly, a woman named Delia walks out on her family to start from scratch and test out a new one. How many of us haven’t dreamed of doing this? Delia’s radical claim on a meditative space where she can discover what’s most important to her in life turns into a zone where I can meditate on my own life choices and what I really value (without the danger of abandoning everything and everyone around me completely.)

 

SantaLand Diaries by David Sedaris

This is pure pleasure and something of a Christmas tradition in my relationship. We make ourselves cups of hot chocolate, lie on blankets in front of the fire with the Christmas tree in the background and read these hilarious stories aloud to each other. Sedaris’ humour is so well paced and tinged with a slant of darkness that makes these stories endlessly surprising.