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Who IS Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Updated on May 11, 2012

I'll be honest, I used to be afraid of Virginia Woolf. I'm now more afraid of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but of Virginia Woolf, not so much. (That's just a joke; I'm not afraid of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf either.)

But there's no need to be afraid, really. It's a bit silly. What's a book, even one by Virginia Woolf, going to do to you? Maybe make you feel a bit stupid, perhaps? But I've never bothered with people, or books, who are all superior like that. People who make me feel stupid don't deserve a place in my life, so I eject them from it. But books don't necessarily need to be like that. Our perceptions of them, based on what we've heard some hoighty-toighty people say about them, generally turn out to be wildly inaccurate. Let's think of some books that are supposed to be a bit difficult to get through.

  • War and Peace - fair enough, I've never tried to read it yet
  • Vanity Fair - true, it is a whopper
  • Catch 22 - for the life of me I cannot understand why this is supposed to be difficult
  • Animal Farm - not that bad, at least it's short
  • Jane Eyre - I read it in a day once (not braggin' or anyfink)
  • Heart of Darkness - better if read without a teacher translating every sentence
  • Lord of the Rings - a fortnight in Greece will get you through this
  • The Gormenghast Trilogy - I'll grant you, it's not an easy one

This is not the definitive list of 'most difficult books to read', clearly, and there are harder literary tomes than these. But I think that lots of people, if presented with that book list, might mutter something along the lines of 'oh, haven't you got any Terry Pratchett, something a bit more fun?'.

But how do you know they're not fun if you haven't read them? Well, alright, almost all of those books are not fun, with the possible exceptions of Vanity Fair and Catch 22 - and even in both of those nearly everybody dies.

I suppose it all depends on why you read. Do you read for relaxation? Well then, perhaps Animal Farm is not for you, being rather political (I'm the queen of understatement) and somewhat pacey. Do you read to broaden your mind? Then you should be alright with the whole of that list. Do you read to impress people? Surely no one does that, do they? Well, yes, actually, some people do. And actually, they don't read their books properly, with joy and unbridled pleasure; they don't climb into the pages of their books and disappear into other worlds in those precious hours. They analyse! And they discuss! And they find out what other people think, and they challenge, and profess to have a clearer understanding than you, all the while being blissfully unaware of having missed the whole point of reading. And if you were to ask them if they enjoyed a particular book you would never hear them say yes, because they believe, as such-and-such-a-body in such-and-such-a-periodical said, that everything is badly written.


Here's a thing to tell yourself about 'difficult' literature: you don't have to like it, and you don't have to finish it if you don't like it. You could borrow Heart of Darkness from the library - it's a quick read, you'd not likely incur a fine - and you could give it a go. Because - and here's the big clue - there's a reason why these books are still famous and still endure and are still on school curricula, and it's because they're really, really good! But I think that the trick to reading a book that you think of as 'heavy' is to read it with no expectations, if you can. Don't read what anyone else has to say about it first, don't let someone else form your opinions for you (as is the case when I read books in English lessons at school) before you've even read a word yourself. Just go with it, as it were. Read the words as the author (and editor) put them down, and enjoy the story in its rawness, uncluttered by in depth analyses and favourable or negative reviews. Pick up a book and read it because it grabs you and you think you might enjoy it. Read it because you're curious as to what all the fuss may be about.

I have recently been reading some famous books, not really knowing anything about them, but simply being aware of their existence for most of my life. The Pickwick Papers, by Dickens of course, Catch 22, by Joseph Heller, and To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. And I might as well tell you that all three are bloody brilliant! Three very different stories, all having just one thing in common, that of being on my must-read-before-I-die list. I felt that I should read them because they are famous great works of literature - and I think that's exactly the problem, right there, that's what puts people off so much. If they're old and famous they're probably impossible for ordinary people to understand. Not so. I finished Catch 22 last night; I picked it up thinking that it was a pretentious piece of sci-fi! I didn't even know it was a WWII story - how thick am I?! But it had just passed under my radar for the whole of my life. Oh, but I loved it though. What an amazing book - truthfully, now one of my favourite books. And such an easy read - I whizzed through it, and that was because I cared deeply about the characters.

Do I understand the deep and all-pervading satire that penetrates the whole book? No, I do not. I will freely admit that most of the references probably went straight over my head. But still, I loved it. And isn't that just as important? Well, maybe not quite as important as understanding the important anti-war message, but almost. I doubt that I could discuss the book's themes and messages with you, unless you go first and give me some clues. But that's where the fun really begins - you need to have read it before you can properly analyse it.

In school I remember teachers telling us what every line, every word of Shakespeare meant, painstakingly, methodically, never missing out a single historical reference for fear that we might not learn what a 'contagious blastment' is ... What a shame they didn't just send us off alone to read, or to act in groups, before coming back together in the lesson with a good basic overview of the whole story. It would all have made much more sense, I'm sure. As it was, I remember being told things like 'it will all become clear as we go on ...' quite a lot, and 'as we'll see in the next chapter ...'. Hmm. It never did become clear, until I read them by myself years later.

So I've now read Catch 22, as I said. And I've been blown away by it, as I intimated, quite blown away (just like Snowden's innards!) and now I can go and find some reviews of it, and find out just how much of the satire did go over my head. And then what's nice is that, if I want to, I can read it again, knowing a little bit more than I did the first time. On the back of my copy of Catch 22 there is a quote which says 'if they can take it' which refers to readers who might not be able to stand to read the whole book because of the seeming irreverence of Heller's writing and his willingness to satirise war when it had only quite recently ended. Is it alright to poke fun at death? But Heller doesn't really do that - his story is actually very sensitive and respectful to those who do deserve respect; but he is brutally honest. We all know war is ridiculous, don't we? Catch 22 only ridicules the causes we fight for, not the sacrifices that 'we' made; he calls into question our convictions about what is right and who is evil.

Well, I may have missed the point entirely, but what I'm illustrating in the above paragraph is that last night, when I put the book down, I didn't know that I'd picked up anything deep. I merely thought that I thought 'wow, I've finished a clever book!'. It's not until you've (you might actually read very deeply into a books themes straight away - I ain't none too clever at the point of reading, and have to mull things over for a while) had time to digest a book and let it get under your skin that what you've learned from it starts to leak out.

Another example - and this demonstrates how thick I can be - is that I didn't realise that the Wild Things in Where the Wild Things Are were actually inside Max, that they were personifications (monsterifications?) of his rage. The depth of thought that a book is written with is often lost on me. But that does not mean that I don't derive a tremendous amount of pleasure from reading. Vanity Fair, mammoth book, full of historical jokes and names and undercurrents that I will never understand - but still one of my favourite books because of its characters, its story of desperation and survival, its humour and its costumes!

But what about some popular science or popular history? A bit of Stephen Hawking or some Antonia Fraser? Believe me, never as tricky as you might expect. I once picked a huge biography of Queen Victoria off a shelf and announced that I was going to read it - my partner said, not at all patronisingly, 'I know you want to read history books, but maybe you should start with something a little smaller?'. But I read it, and it was a fascinating read. I was surprised that history could be brought to life so beautifully, that it could be so captivating and alive, that I promptly started buying up all the books on kings and queens that I could find. I now know a lot about the Tudors. Queen Lizzy the First? What a gal!

Science I'm just getting started on; but what fun! Physics! I failed all of my science subjects at school - I wish I'd known how amazing and beautiful and magical and awesome and inspiring and just downright ace science is. I could have been an astrophysicist by now.

So, as I was saying at the beginning, there's nothing to be afraid of in a book. If you really hate it, just put it down and pick up another. It never hurts to try though ...

Mind you, I haven't opened War and Peace yet.


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    • Lady Wordsmith profile image

      Linda Rawlinson 5 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      I'll be honest, I had to look up New Criticism :) And I don't know quite what I think about it. It seems like an interesting way of looking at a piece of writing, to consider only the words on the page and none of the influences that might have come to bear on those words. Part of the editing process is to make sure that every word on the page counts and is important, so maybe New Criticism is the best way to go about extracting all meaning. But then, as a writer, I'm not sure I would find that kind of criticism satisfying - surely writers imbue their work with meaning and references that they wish to be understood by readers who enjoy a deeper kind of reflection? Although, having said that, we don't all read and write in the same way, do we? Sometimes there is no deeper meaning, and I can remember analysing passages at school and thinking to myself 'I don't think this writer meant for us to look so closely at this'. Maybe I've been an unconscious advocate of New Criticism all this time.

      However, I would have to say that New Criticism is one way of analysing a piece, but that to get the most out of a text (or poem, of course) there may be more than one way of looking at it.

      Personally, and I don't know about you, but I've never been very good at analysing writing. I'm rarely able to get past my first emotional response to a piece, and I'm not at all well-read so many references pass me by completely. Since I've been writing though, I think my ability to pick apart a book has improved slightly.

      What do you feel about New Criticism?

    • literatelibran profile image

      literatelibran 5 years ago from Williamsburg, Virginia

      Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf *is* scary, though her writings are relatively approachable. She's like an updated, feminist version of Jane Austen.

      After reading this, I'm curious as to how you feel about New Criticism.

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image

      Linda Rawlinson 5 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      I would have loved to live in it too Chris. It wasn't at all as I expected it to be. I had expected it to be fuller, for it to be crawling with people, like an ants' nest. Or maybe you did see it full of people - I suppose we all add our own things to the scenery whether they're written in or not. That's why I find it's always best to read the book before the film comes out

      I'll check out Mr Aronson, thank you. It's been a couple of years since I read history, and I'm definitely ready for a bit more now.


    • Lady Wordsmith profile image

      Linda Rawlinson 5 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      D'you know, I'm saying I'm not afraid of Virginia Woolf, I'm not actually convinced I've read any of her work! I said I was thick.

      'War and Peace' is on my shelf, and on my list. That books sounds like exactly my kind of book - I bet it emits a gorgeous crackle?

      'Animal Farm' as a book was brilliant, and I remember actually understanding it at school when we read it (think I was 11) - but I can never get the animated film out of my head, which is probably good (I can't remember), but annoys me.

      'Jane Eyre' is one of my great loves in literature. I didn't like it at all when we read it at school, but read it again (in one day!) when I was about 22, and absolutely adored it. I cried and cried in lots of places. I can see that it would be boring to lots of people though - pretty much nothing happens for most of the book!

      'Catch 22' - meh, whatever. Don't read it if you don't want to. It's not a patch on your words on pottery anyway ;)

      'Vanity Fair'? Totally poncy - love it!

      'Lord of the Rings' - another one I didn't read until I was in my mid-twenties. Just re-read it this year too - this time, reading it as a 'writer', I was surprised by how simple the language was. I'd remembered a much more difficult text, but I suppose I'd elevated it to some kind of unreachable standard that I could never hope to attain.

      'Gormenghast' is amaaaayzing! But it was very hard work and required a lot of concentration. I was rewarded for my efforts, with a new way of looking at ordinary things. I think it's going to have a good influence on my writing.

      Oh yes, I like that feeling of wishing the book was longer. I've read a couple of books like that lately - one of them was just a short novel, standing alone, with no sequels; the other was part of a four volume series.

      Much love,


    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      The Ghormenghast Trilogy really fascinated me when I read it. I would love to live in that castle.

      Most of the other books you mention are old friends. Thanks for reminding me of them.

      BTW, if you like biography, read any of those written by Theo Aronson. He really brings his subjects to life better than any other writer of history that I have read.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 5 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Hi Linda, a great hub for all the right reasons. I read Virginia Wolff for the first time as a result of seeing the Taylor-Burton movie, and really entered into the jousts with trepidation. So I read ‘To the Lighthouse’. I came out of those tilting yards battle scarred and bruised and thoroughly confused, but didn’t give up, because in later years I read ‘Between the Acts’ and loved it.

      ‘War and Peace’ I read when I was seventeen. I had a copy small/large enough to carry around in my duffel coat pocket. It was printed on rice paper and I still have it, but wow, did I love that. (Rhetorical question)

      ‘Animal Farm’ was one of the books I studied when I went back to school, and I loved it from page one to the very end.

      But ‘Jane Eyre’? I have tried and tried to read that, but I find it the most boring book ever... even more boring than the Highway Code Manual - 1972.

      When I came to England in 1965, everybody on the boat was reading ‘Catch 22’... Everybody but me. I never tried, and I don’t think I ever will.

      ‘Vanity Fair’ - Nah, sounded too poncy.

      ‘Lord of the Rings’ Yes. I knew some of those kids. They went to my public school.

      ‘The Gormenghast Trilogy’ - No!

      What I am trying to say, is: I read a book because I want to know what happens to him in the end. I love the picaresque style and obviously that fulfils my needs, and I will attempt some of the classics, but I am afraid that I am no intellectual. I frequently sit there and all those little nuances and clever allusions go over my head, but if I come to the end of a book, and feel that I have enjoyed it, then all the better.

      What I really like, even more, is coming to ALMOST the end of the book, and wishing there were a lot more to read,

      It’s something like being notified that Lady Wordsmith has written a hub, and then I scamper over to read it, because I know I am going to find quality... Just like this one.



    • Lady Wordsmith profile image

      Linda Rawlinson 5 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      It's worth a try triciajean :) You may hate Catch 22, but you'll never know if you don't look at it. So many books, so little time - sometimes it's impossible to choose! Thanks for reading, and taking the time to comment.


    • triciajean profile image

      Patricia Lapidus 5 years ago from Bantam, CT

      This is a relaxed and humorous look at some of the titles we've heard again and again. And how to get into a good book. Thanks. I've got Catch 22 on my shelf. I'll stop backing away from it. grin