I sometimes think that the books that have stayed longest in my mind are those that I haven’t read. As I scan my shelves, many of the titles my eyes pass over are books I read about while still at school or heard about at university; books bought in a rush of enthusiasm which faded as something new grabbed my attention.
In my salad days the two volumes of Virginia Woolf ’s The Common Reader were among the most influential. Volume 1 was published in 1925 and Volume 2 in 1932. They are collections of reviews and journalism, written while she was also creating some of her best-known novels. They cover literary criticism, character sketches and the byways of reading. I have never forgotten how enticing she made Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia sound:
We are drawn on down winding paths of this impossible landscape because Sidney leads us without any end in view but sheer delight in wandering. The syllabling of the words even causes him the liveliest delight. Mere rhythm we feel as we sweep over the smooth backs of the undulating sentences intoxicates him. Words in themselves delight him. Look, he seems to cry, as he picks up the glittering handfuls, can it be true that there are such numbers of beautiful words lying around for the asking? Why not use them, lavishly and abundantly? And so he luxuriates. Lambs do not suck – ‘with bleating oratory they craved the dam’s comfort’; girls do not undress – they ‘take away the eclipsing of their apparel’; a tree is not reflected in a river – ‘it seemed she looked into it and dressed her green locks by that running water’.
Who could resist? Well, my college tutor could: ‘Too many purple passages!’ he said severely. My innocently cheeky reply at the time was that I didn’t think so, but that was why I wanted to study English with people who knew better.
After three years of being taught better, I was haunted by his austerity for a long time. But the
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