OVERBOOKED: “A Room of One’s Own”

Stephanie Chen, Senior Staff Reporter

When I was a pretentious high school senior, my favorite author was Virginia Woolf. Her experimental, abstruse novel “The Waves” absolutely blew my mind — I had never read anything half as ambitious or beautiful or confusing. I read the first half of “Mrs. Dalloway” about five times (mostly because I would read it halfway through and then get bored, and then the next time I picked up the book would have to start over from the beginning.) I loved “The Hours,” a novel by Michael Cunningham that was inspired by “Mrs. Dalloway,” and I watched the movie multiple times. Virginia Woolf was an insane, genius-level demigoddess to me, and that’s pretty much how I talked about her all the time.

There are so many things for young women to love about Virginia Woolf: Her strange, gorgeous writing! Her attention to detail! Her amazing name! Her illustrious life! For my younger self, Virginia Woolf was the more established, intellectual, expressive version of Sylvia Plath, a more fully realized portrait of a tragic artist. She was, in common parlance, my “Number One Bae.”

Of course, then I went to college and stopped reading Woolf. When I was home one break though, I was at Half Price Books and noticed a copy of her landmark, feminist extended essay “A Room of One’s Own” for only $1. It’s one of those books that all women should read, and since I 1) didn’t own it and 2) am easily swayed by the dollar section of any store, I bought it and left it on my shelf for a year. This week, it only took me two hours to read front to back, spread across an empty night and a hungover morning.

In the essay, Woolf argues that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” That is, women must have a stable income and private space in order to express themselves at the highest level creatively. I don’t want to go into the book’s content too much, which I realize might be contrary to what you expect out of this column. You know, this column about books. I’m not going to specifically talk about how I agree and disagree with her, and on what points, and in which cases I think third wave feminism can make much stronger arguments than the ones she makes, or how her arguments occasionally come off as elitist, or how there are some points in which I totally agreed and thought “Yes, this is exactly the thing I needed to hear right now, today, in the headspace that I’m currently floundering in.” (Do you see what I did there? Great, we can now move on.)

What was most important about this book for me was that, of all the political books I’ve read recently, “A Room of One’s Own” elicited the most visceral reactions from me. Of all my books, this one has the most writing and thoughts written in its margins. On one page alone, I found these notes in the margin: “umm no,” “WOW NO,” and “oh man lol “ (Woolf made a dry joke about being eaten by wild beasts. I’m a sucker for wild beast jokes.) I promise that elsewhere my notes are much more compelling and vaguely more insightful, but I think the ones I listed are good examples for how masterful Woolf’s writing is. She seamlessly moves from being coy to biting, from dry humor to absolute severity. She baits you and then punches a gut. And her writing is beautiful — no one can convince me that walking along a London street is the best thing in the world like Virginia Woolf can.

One of my favorite mental spaces when reading is when I feel wholly present to the book — I’m not too lost in its world, but I’m not wandering off into my own unrelated thoughts either (I bought rutabaga this week on a whim, so what do I do with it now? Make a stew? Or that rutabaga curry dish I saw on Pinterest? Do I need coconut milk? Maybe I should go bike to the grocery store? OH RIGHT let’s talk about the women in literature again.)

While reading “A Room of One’s Own,” I had a foot in each world — I was fully engaged in Woolf’s 20th century world and fully invested in how they related to my own experience. This, my friends, was like lucid-dreaming except substituting reading for sleeping. “Lucid-reading.” It also set me on the path to develop a thesis on how “A Room of One’s Own” relates to Taylor Swift’s pop music ascension. Get back to me in a few weeks when I’ve fleshed that out a little more.

Might this be the most useless review of a book you’ve ever read? Probably. But there are so many reasons to read this seminal work — for its approach to art, views on female equality, insistence on the value of “work”, and the absolute sheer beauty of Woolf’s writing itself. I’m not sure I bought into everything she said, but as a senior English major (Creative Writing concentration) about to graduate and figure out how to make my adult life a creative one, it was timely, sage advice. It was a weird thing to read while hungover on a Saturday morning, but damn was it a joy.

Next week: “Bark” by Lorrie Moore

Leave a Comment