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The Common Reader, First Series

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2000

    An Uncommonly Good Read

    You start out wanting to like this author. she has a witty, humorous way with words, a reverence for the written word and a telling grasp of what distinguishes writers of various ages. Of Elizabethan damatists, she writes: 'Theirs is the word coining genius, as if thought plunged into a sea of words and came up dripping.' She writes about Classical Greek dramatists as one who understands what separates them from all writers who follow: 'To understand him,' she says of Aeschylus,'it is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words, for words, when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be blown astray.' For her, the best writing, whether that of Aeschylus or Shakespeare, has a meaning that defies words, a meaning that we perceive in the mind -- without words. Coming down the ages and pausing to consider Jane Austen, she captures the essential writer in terms that encourage and enlarge: 'Think away the surface animation, the likeness to life, and there remains, to provide a deeper pleasure, an exquisite discrimination of human values.' Along with her interest in the well known, she has a teasing regard for near greats and nobodies, whose seldom touched thoughts rest near oblivion. Of the memoirs of one, Laetitia Pilkington, she writes: 'the dust lies heavy on her tomb; nobody has read her since early in the last century when a reader left off in the middle and marked her place with a faded list of goods and groceries.' Nor is it just to have a cheap chuckle that she looks at such relative unknowns, but to give us a look at their frequently bereft and pained lives. Laetitia Pilkington was a woman badly used by men in her life. Woolf has a compassion for such people. You begin by wanting to like this woman who claims it's the common reader who makes or breaks authors. As you read on, you find yourself happily taken in and smiling at her wit, humor and insight.

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