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October 19, 2010

Notables: Street Haunting by Virginia Woolf

May/June 2005 was certainly an exciting time in the history of the universe– Penguin Books had just turned 70, and I was about to get married. These two occasions colliding one day on Oxford Street in London where I happened to be shopping for a wedding dress, and had stopped into a Waterstones where Priscilla Presley was scheduled to be appearing. Though I was devastated to discover that we’d shown up for Priscilla precisely one day late, so I never got to see her promoting her new book. Instead, I bought a copy of Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, a gorgeous little volume (for 1 pound fifty!) that had been published as part of Penguin’s birthday celebration.

So it’s not an especially rare book, or an old one, but it’s notable to me. It contains six examples of Woolf’s essays and short fiction, which blur the lines between the two particularly. And to be honest, I would have had an impossible time ever cracking this book and getting through its 56 page had I a month later not happened to sign up for a course in Woolf’s essays and short fiction at UofT where I was to begin graduate studies in September. Woolf’s essays and short fiction meaning nothing to me previously– I’d bought the book because I liked the idea of Woolf more than I really understood her work, and I’d signed up for the course because it was the only Woolf-course available.

My performance in the course was positively dismal, and if you never see me in graduate school again (which, I assure you, you won’t!), the challenges I faced in that course are all the reasons why. If by challenges, of course, you mean the brick wall I kept banging my head against in an attempt to understand academic theory, which, oddly enough, no one had ever mentioned to me during my undergraduate career, or just my efforts to get along in grad school life in general, which met with very poor results. Grad school taught me that I’m really not cut out for grad school, BUT, I learned so very much along the way. Like how to read Virginia Woolf, and that changed everything.

Because I found that her essays and short fiction really are the key to understanding her larger projects, and the foundations behind them. From reading her book reviews, and her Common Reader essays, and her short stories, I found myself positively immersed in her work, and my general academic stupidity aside, I became fluent in Woolf. I understand Woolfian arguments now, and how they turn and wobble, and the straight path was never her intention, so if you get confused reading Virginia Woolf, it’s because you’re supposed to.

And I couldn’t have learned any of this all on my own– if I’d taken a break from wedding planning during that day to read Street Haunting as I was swept along with the Oxford Street tide, I would have found myself baffled and disappointed. I would have read all that weirdness and thought the problem was me. I was sorely in need of a little guidance to illuminate just what was going on, and never mind that that guidance was just showing me the door out of academia, but en route, oh what I learned as I shuffled to the exit.

I learned to read Virginia Woolf— because there’s a knack to it, of course. It’s hard and weird, but infinitely rewarding, and the universe is a more mesmerizing place for it. I could pick up a copy of Street Haunting now and follow its meanderings for hours.

So I like this book because it’s a souvenir, and also because I learned to read Virginia Woolf is another way of saying I have lived.

3 thoughts on “Notables: Street Haunting by Virginia Woolf”

  1. m says:

    This post? This is exactly why I love your blog so much.

  2. Pamela Reel says:

    Is there a meaning to Street Haunting? I have read 4 times and do not think I understand what she is trying to communicate to me.

  3. Nivedita says:

    So how are you supposed to read Virginia Woolf??
    I’m analysing street haunting for my English assignment and am having a hard time giving an I depth analysis in terms of belonging

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