On Self Education

It’s been a long time since I read anything by Virginia Woolf, so listening to her book To The Lighthouse this week, (read by one of my favorite narrators, Virginia Leishman) has been a real pleasure. After so long away, I was once again captured by the intelligence and beauty of her writing, and by her sensitivity and intensity. This book is like a beautiful, softly impressionistic painting done with words.

I can tell you the very day I discovered Virginia Woolf, she made that profound an impression on me. My son was a newborn, and our first outing with him was to the library (where else?). We wandered through the stacks of our little local branch, and I came across a book that caught my eye. The photograph on the cover was lovely, and the book looked interesting to me because it was a compilation of memories of people who had known this person. The book was Recollections of Virginia Woolf By Her Contemporaries, edited by Joan Russell Noble. I was enthralled with the view of her from those other people, so when I finished the book I began to read all her works. I was particularly drawn to her letters and diaries, because it was the person and her life that fascinated me. Her fiction followed, and then her essays.

In looking back at the impact this author has had on my life, I can track one particular idea that really struck home with me so many years ago and which became a very important part of me. She talked about her “self education,” (her extensive reading in her father’s library), and how traditionally women have educated themselves by reading. I took that idea to heart at that young age and realized that my reading was and would be the most important part of my own education. With that new awareness and attitude, I became more mindful of what I was reading and learning, and over the years I’ve enjoyed how it all fit together. Learning is about making connections, and when you look at the reading you do over a long period of time, for entertainment, escape, and “education,” you realize how ideas connect and lead to other ideas and discoveries, and how it all becomes part of who you are. I’ve had some great teachers throughout my life, but I think that Virginia Woolf was one of the most influential–someone that greatly enhanced my life.

Virginia had this way of magnifying one’s simple words and experiences. One would hand her a bit of information as dull as a lump of lead. She would hand it back glittering like diamonds. I always felt on leaving her that I had drunk two glasses of an excellent champagne. She was a life-enhancer. That was one of her own favorite phrases. She always said that the world was divided into two categories: those who enhanced life and those who diminished it.
–Nigel Nicholson,
from Recollections of Virginia Woolf By Her Contemporaries

9 thoughts on “On Self Education

  1. Gentle Reader

    I love the quote–he calls her a “life-enhancer”. Isn’t that what all the best writers are? They so enhance my life…

    I haven’t read much Virginia Woolf, though I was inspired to read Mrs. Dalloway after reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. And I really enjoyed it.

    I also remember reading A Room of One’s Own in college, and it was one of the first feminist works that really made an impression on me.


  2. jenclair

    I love her thoughts on self-education, and what a wonderful compliment it is to credit her as one of your most influential teachers.

    The quote by Nigel Nicholson is wonderful!


  3. Robin

    Gentle Reader, I agree with you that all the best writers are life-enhancers. It’s a wonderful description.

    Thanks, Jenclair. I think we all find certain authors that really speak to us at particular times in our lives, and that’s part of what feeds our passion for reading.


  4. Nan

    I love this, and agree with everything you’ve written. I recently read Recollections… (as you know) after owning it for decades, and I found it so wonderful. I came to VW in just the opposite way. I read her books, and then went to the letters, diaries, and now this one.

    I also listened to To The Lighthouse a few years ago, after not reading it for a while, and was so moved. I felt like I was there. What description, and what a way to tell a story. God, how I love it, and her.


  5. Robin

    Nan, it was your post on Recollections that made me want to reread her fiction. And when I found the audiobook of To The Lighthouse at the library, I knew it was time. It was lovely to listen to it.


  6. Nymeth

    I have yet to really get into Virginia Woolf’s fiction. I’m not too fond of her short stories. I need to give her novels a change.

    Her essays, however, I find absolutely remarkable. She says very wise thing in a beautiful way that only increases their impact.


  7. Robin

    Nymeth, I do like her essays. She wrote two on Jane Austen that I really like. I think her fiction requires some quiet, undisturbed time (in short supply these days). She’s best when there’s no pressure, a minimum of interruptions for a period of time, and when you are willing to slow yourself down and immerse yourself in an inner world. In other words, the time has to be right.


  8. danielle

    I am reading Night and Day at the moment by Woolf. I hope to read all her work eventually–she is really wonderful. I like the idea of self education as well. I will have to try and find the Noble book as well!


  9. Robin

    Danielle, there’s a lot more of her writing, and books about her, available now that weren’t published when I did most of my VW reading. I’ve never read the Hermione Lee biography, for instance. So, I’ve got more to read and enjoy, too.



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