Episode 12: The After Show: How Virginia Woolf Made Me a Feminist
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Paul Kix: Hello, and welcome to the After Show for Now That's a Great Story. On Monday, we talked with Nathan Hill about his book The Nix and in discussing that we ended up talking about one of his favorite books Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. This, I would argue is a Quake Book. And today we will be discussing what a Quake Book is and how you can go about finding one for yourself.
First, let’s establish some ground rules for reading in general for what a Quake Book is as well.
When I go to talk with college students or anyone else is interested writing, they inevitably end up asking me you know how do I start? and the best way to answer that is with a question of my own, which is how much do you read To make a living at writing, you need to read a lot. You need to read books, magazines, and newspapers. You need to read way more than you write, and write way more than what you publish.
So read widely because it'll expose you to different cultures and ideas. This isn't necessarily anything really groundbreaking. I mean, you'll hear from a lot of different writer, “and yes you need to read a lot,” but at a certain point, reading widely doesn't.. I don't think reading widely actually helps you write. At a certain point reading 10 books in one month isn't as helpful as reading one book 10 times. You’ll learn way more from reading that one book over and over than you will from reading multiple books a single time.
And I think that's what I think happened with Nathan Hill. He read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway over and over. He talked about a little bit in the episode. I think this is something that’s kind of fascinating because Nathan talks about reading and rereading Mrs. Dalloway. Paying attention to how the main character, the protagonist is a woman named Clarissa, bought the flowers. In fact, that’s the opening line, “Clarissa decided she would buy the flowers herself.”
As Woolf represents it, Clarissa is walking through London and there is this vantage point of her but you're also getting this fight that Clarissa had with her help and the perspectives that Woolf gives on Clarissa's life, they’re deep and nuanced and Nathan absorbed it all down to Virginia Woolf use a semicolon. That was something that I didn't know if we were going to keep in the last episode but I think it showed just how passionate Nathan was about reading Mrs. Dalloway.
He was studying the choices wolf made as a writer. He wasn't just reading the book anymore and he mentioned how he said that he must have read the first 10 pages of Mrs. Dalloway and it was almost too many times for him to count. He was trying to pick it apart. He was trying to understand the book and more importantly come to see how he might be a writer in the vein of Virginia Woolf. For Nathan then. Mrs. Dalloway is a Quake Book. Quake Book is a book that is endlessly fascinating to you; that alters you; that makes your whole being thrum with satisfaction.
You can go online and you can see there's entire Reddit chains of what a quake book is and there are people who dedicated entire books to this. Tim Ferriss the entrepreneur and author has a book that's basically the tools of titans and it's just what people use to make them great. A lot of times they ended up being the books that they've read along the way that are profoundly influenced their lives.
I've had a few Quake Books in my life and actually one of them is another Virginia Woolf book, A Room of One's Own. In that one, the book’s -- narrator and we never learned her true name -- but she asked to give a lecture on women and fiction. And the narrator is appalled because is it women in fiction or women who write fiction? And in either case this is the early 20th century. There is a heavy burden placed on the narrator in this book because to talk about women and fiction or women in fiction is to talk about historical oppression and misogyny. And what grabbed me about the book wasn't the idea but the language used she to deploy her ideas. I mean here is Woolf fairly early in the book just talking about an idea.
“It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds letting the water lift it and sink it until, you know the little tug, the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one's line and in the cautious hauling of it in, and then the careful laying of it out. Alas, laid on the grass how small how insignificant this thought of mine looked. The sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. I will not trouble you with that thought now though if you look carefully you may find it for yourselves in the course of what I am going to say.”
Wwhat she had to say for a long time wasn't as interesting to me as how she said it. I had never met anyone who use language that was that precise or that Lively on the page. I just consumed A Room of One's Own. it was the first book or when I finished it I immediately started it again. I wanted to hear only and forever the melody of her prose. So I listened to it a second time, and it a third time and a fourth and fifth and sixth and ultimately not only how she wrote but what she wrote began to affect me. The historic oppression, the fact that women couldn't own property, the fact that ambitious women needed extraordinary luck to exercise their ambition. The fact that all it took in the end to write fiction as a woman was a little bit of money and a room of one's own -- but both of those things they were near impossible in English law had forever considered women the property of men.
And even if that law had changed women still didn't have many career opportunities at that time outside of a teacher. or then there was the fact that A Room of One's Own was unheard of for basically any woman who is raising children. And all of this made me sympathize with Woolf. it made me sympathize with women, it made me a feminist. Virginia Woolf made me a feminist. in Reading A Room of One's Own 10 times had a far more profound influence on my writing in my life than reading 10 books of hers.
Find your Quake Book I would say that it's as easy as you seeking it out but I think in actuality what ends up happening is your Quake Book finds you. And when it does find you, give it the attention it deserves. Don't worry about the other books that you're not reading because this is the one that's going to make the impact on your life.
The music for now that's a great story comes from Jeff Willet. Some production help comes from him as well. If you would like to receive an email from me that looks at the stories I love and highlights what else I'm reading, what else I'm thinking about, the artists who are inspiring me to do my best work in the hopes that you might do your best work, head over to call Paulkix.com/newsletter and sign up for my newsletter. I'll be back next week till then have a good one. Bye bye.