Today brings one of the saddest anniversaries in modern literature. Seventy-six years ago today, on March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf weighted her pockets with stones, then drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home outside London. Plagued by the latest in a series of nervous breakdowns that haunted her throughout her life, she decided she couldn’t go on. In the note she left behind, Woolf lamented that she could no longer read or write clearly, which must have been a special agony for a woman who embraced the reading of books – and the making of them – as the twin passions of her life.
It’s the passion, not the sadness, of Woolf’s life that we should remember, says Michael Cunningham, whose novel, “The Hours,” was inspired by Woolf’s work. (It was later made into a 2002 movie with Nicole Kidman as Woolf.) Cunningham’s enthusiasm for Woolf is a reminder that despite her prominent place in feminist thought, she shouldn’t be regarded as only a “woman’s writer.”
What I like best about Woolf is how ceaselessly alive her prose is. She thought of writing and reading as active experiences, not sedate pastimes. When her Victorian family failed to send her to college, apparently assuming a university education for a woman was beside the point, she schooled herself in the library of her father, the man of letters Leslie Stephen. Her sympathy was always with what she called “the common reader” – the bookworm who “reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.”
The pleasure of language rested at the heart of Woolf’s novels, such as “To the Lighthouse” and “Mrs. Dalloway,” as well as her lively occasional essays and literary criticism.
Books defined her. She and her husband, Leonard Woolf, started a small literary house, Hogarth Press, an operation so tiny that they ran the printing press themselves. Books filled her house, and they were often the subject of her writing.
More than seven decades after her passing, Woolf continues to draw new readers. In May, British publisher Notting Hill Editions will release Woolf's "Essays on the Self" in the United States, with New York Review Books as distributor.
“Do not dictate to your author; try to become him,” she tells readers in one of the book’s finest essays, “How to Read a Book.” “Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other.”
In our era of snap judgments and instant media, Woolf’s call to open-mindedness resonates more than ever. That’s the legacy we should celebrate every March – and every month of the year.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”