You’ve probably noticed by now that Virginia Woolf is everywhere. In the books-and-giftcards aisle of your local supermarket, tripping down spines in the “self-help” section of the bookstore, sometimes hawking products that have nothing to do with literature, at all. I’m talking about Things Of One’s Own.
Woolf’s tough, reasoned 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own” has infiltrated common usage more than any other feminist manifesto, but those who reference it most often seem least equipped with a working knowledge of the text. At least, that’s the only explanation for one witch history tome named “A Holocaust of One’s Own.” Not to mention the farmer’s memoir “Barnheart, a Farm of One’s Own,” the collecting guide called “A Museum of One’s Own” for wealthy patrons of the arts, and the equestrian-themed, bodice-ripping novel—you guessed it—A Groom of One’s Own.
If Woolf’s essay is so little read that nonsensical allusions to it are now commonplace, something has gone terribly wrong. Everyone, particularly young women, need to know what’s behind the title. This is one of the rare works that reliably turns readers into radical feminists, without any primer in social feminism or second-wave theory: just pour all your own nebulous dissatisfactions, observations, and vague knowledge of Western cultural history into the crucible of Woolf’s precise logic, and you get a perfectly formed account of the material conditions of female genius. And not just the genius of an allegorical Shakespeare’s sister, but maybe your own.
Girls need to be worrying more about their own genius, because no one else is doing it for them. Three-quarters of American high school seniors can’t read at a “proficient” level. Of them, boys are referred for testing for gifted programs twice as often as girls, and males make up more than 2/3 of all children in special education programs. Maybe if all the female students waiting to be noticed knew that “A Room of One’s Own” doesn’t just describe a “For Him” collection of bathroom furniture, they would better recognize the injustice in their classrooms.
Which is why in this blog series I want to look into “required reading,” how it’s taught, and what we (should/could) get out of it. Which classics take up the most space in the collective memory? Is there something worth remembering from the dudecentric classics of high school book lists? (I’m looking about you: To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Huck Finn, and Lord of the Flies) What about from Mrs. Dalloway, Beloved and Pride and Prejudice? What makes literature unforgettable and important to fledgling feminists? And what new works should become required reading?
Next time, I’ll be writing about The Caine Mutiny, for which one might prepare, as high school students probably do, by streaming the movie. For the following posts, I’m taking suggestions—any widely influential book, and any book that you wish were widely influential, is fair game. Preference will be given to those works that have truly been “required reading” by some institution or another: cultural imperatives are so much more interesting when they’re really imperative.
The only book I’m ruling out is the Big Book: the Bible gets enough airtime already, and its influence is waning: According to a Gallup survey in 2000, 60% of Americans don’t know five of the 10 commandments, less than half can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), and a whopping 12% of the U.S. population thinks Noah was married to Joan of Arc.