Sunday, April 15, 2007

Reading. Woolf.

Before going to dinner at my favorite diner last night I wandered into the used bookstore nearby, as I always do. I like old books with their vintage cover art, their worn corners and yellowed pages. I love new books, too, with their smooth white pages and sharp corners, their clean smell. (For those I go to the brightly-lit, great barn of a chain bookstore, with its comfy chairs, filled with the scent of cookies and expensive coffee). But the used bookstore is something different, smelling of dust and old paper. Classical music plays softly in the background as I glance through the tightly-packed shelves. Somehow, as it always happens, I can't find the book I was looking for, but find myself with a pile of eight or so books that I didn't know I wanted. Two of them are by Virginia Woolf, one fiction, the other non-fiction. (I also had two other books by Kurt Vonnegut. Everyone's been buying his books lately, the clerk tells me. It's because he's dead, I say. He stares at me, nonplussed. Yeah, he just died last week. He looks shocked. I didn't know that!).

In my booth down at the diner (while waiting for my Beef Stroganoff) I flip through Three Guineas, which I had not heard of before, with its funny 1960's cover (as it turns out, the cover design is by Ellen Raskin, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Westing Game). I have been reading Virginia Woolf off and on for over a decade now, and Mrs. Dalloway has long been one of my favorite books. There is something cool and precise about her words that make me think of the deliberateness of her suicide. I can imagine her slipping rocks from her garden into her pockets and walking into the river with a purposeful stride, each step taking her deeper into the water until the roiling current closes over her head. I think of that moment, that ending of her life, every time I return to her writing, every time the cold waters of her words close over my own head.

There are three parts to Three Guineas; the first addresses (in the form of an essay-turned-letter, or rather, a letter-turned essay) the inequality between a man's education and a woman's education in a way that paralleled the inequality between men and women of the time. The writer-explorer Mary Kingsley, Woolf tells us, wrote that "being allowed to learn German was all the paid-for education I ever had. Two thousand pounds was spent on my brother's, I still hope not in vain." Woolf tells the prosperous gentleman she addresses - the British man who began his education at "one of the great public schools and finished it at the university," that your education was not merely in book-learning; games educated your body; friends taught you more than books or games...In the holidays you traveled; acquired a taste for art...and then, before you could earn your own living, your father made you an allowance upon which it was possible for you to live while you learn the profession which now entitles you to add the letters K. C. to your name. All this, at the expense of one's sisters, Woolf goes on to add. (With the exception of a profession that adds the letters K. C. to my name, I was privileged enough to, some half a century after these words were written, have that same kind of education that went beyond "book-learning." I, too, hope that it was not in vain).

Woolf goes on to discuss these fundamental differences between the education of men and that of women (or lack thereof) and the consequences of a different outlook on life in general, and most importantly, war. It cuts to the heart.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. Harbinger Books, 1963. pp 4-5.

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