The only advice … that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at the liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions—there we have none.
This from Virginia Woolf, "How Should One Read a Book?" She wrote the essay in 1925, published it in the collection The Second Common Reader. Not an obscure passage, by any means, frequently quoted, but with good reason. I think "authorities, however heavily furred and gowned" is particularly fine and fierce.
I have read at every opportunity since I was 6 years old. My father once assembled all the images from his slide archive that pictured either my mother or me, and in almost all of those that include Boy Dale, I am reading a book. No matter what is going on around me—family visit, picnic, patio party, lounging on the lawn—I am bent over one volume or another. As an adult, I will not leave for a trip of any duration without at least a couple of books in my luggage. On the road, I buy more.
Does having read a lot of books make me well read? Depends on how the terms are defined. For a man with two degrees, one of them a graduate degree in liberal arts from an elite institution, I have some striking lacunae in my reading history. No Austen. No Balzac. No Stendhal, no Zola, no Cervantes, no Lake Poets, no Goethe, no Hugo. Little Henry James, no William James. Trollope, Bronte, Proust, Moby-Dick, or Ulysses? No. I've done better with the major Russians, and done all of Fitzgerald, all of Hemingway, much Thoreau, almost all of Conrad. Half of Edith Wharton. Homer exerts a strange hold on me, as does Basho.
Do I rate for having read (and reread) all of Bruce Chatwin, all of William Gibson, much of E.L Doctorow and Ellen Ullman, and every word by John McPhee? Not among the furred and gowned who man the velvet ropes against the conventionally unlettered. I used to be self-conscious about this. No longer. I value the recommendations of the smart and well read, but feel no need to meet a standard that has more to do with social standing than literary education. I'm sure of my aesthetic judgment and my acute awareness of what engages me and what doesn't. Life is short. I shall read what I please.
Though I do intend to take on Chekhov and Joyce and the Montaigne I've not yet read. I heed Woolf's position on the matter, but still think one should mind the gaps.
Read all of "How Should One Read a Book?" here.
Maria Popova has a typically smart take on the essay here.