Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Original Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf by Ilana Simons

I was a bit apprehensive when I started reading A Life of One's Own by Ilana Simons. The subtitle suggests the book is a self-help guide using Virginia Woolf and her work as a model. Would advice drawn from a writer who ended her life by walking into a river with stones in her pockets be useful? Simons acknowledges this perspective from the first, and for me, the question went away. Besides, advice from a writer who really suffered may be more useful than advice from a team of well-balanced mental health professionals who only witness suffering.

Now that I have read A Life of One's Own, I think it is not really so much a self-help guide for living as an aid for enjoying literature and using reading to find meaning and satisfaction in life. The side benefit is that the reader learns more about Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf may have been bipolar. She tried to commit suicide as a young woman, right after several members of her family died in a short period. She often fought depression and had to maintain a fairly regular routine to function well. In view of her problems, she actually did quite well for a long time. She wrote a lot of very perceptive books and essays, some that are now considered classics. When she committed suicide in May 1940, her London home had been bombed and it seemed probable that the German military would soon invade Great Britain. Perhaps her despair can be forgiven.

Simons uses situations from Woolf's fiction and life as described in her diaries to discuss finding satisfaction in day to day living. Finding a balance between solitude and companionship is key, as is learning how to nurture relationships. When Woolf lived, the nature of some of those relationships was considered scandalous. Today they would hardly be noticed.

I particularly liked advice on why and how to read near the end of the book. A Life of One's Own is a good selection for public libraries.

Simons, Ilana. A Life of One's Own:A Guide to Original Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Penguin Books, 2007. ISBN 9780143112259

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