I didn’t learn to read until this year, our senior year in college. I know that might be a surprising admission to hear from an English concentrator, but it’s true. I’m not saying I wasn’t able to read: The first word I read aloud, for whatever reason, was ‘hamburger,’ and I’ve been on a roll ever since. But it wasn’t until last fall, with the help of a friend of mine named Ginny, that I truly learned how to read.
I’d never met Ginny, yet her reputation preceded her. I’d heard she was a great artist, often a bit of a downer, prone to mood swings, and renowned for her complex, often inscrutable prose. You probably know her by her full name, Virginia Woolf.
Last fall, I came across a class in the course catalog called “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?“ I was. I’d never read a word of Woolf and I knew that her work presented quite the literary challenge. I decided to face my fears head-on and take the class.
I started calling Virginia Woolf by the nickname Ginny early on. I didn’t mean any disrespect — it’s something I do with many authors to engage with them as individuals. I try to get to know them for their own unique qualities. I grapple with them on their own terms, rather than as pre-existing literary archetypes.
Calling Virginia Woolf Ginny enabled me to get to know her (or at least pretend to) in an intimate rather than simply academic context. In doing so, I learned a whole new way of reading, one in which the reader is not a bystander, but rather an active participant in creating the story. I realized that Woolf’s lush, poetic and often challenging prose has a purpose — her tricky passages trip us up, forcing us to question them and come to our own conclusions. A reader can’t wait for meaning to be imparted, but must search and struggle to make something of the words, to write the text again from his or her own perspective. Woolf calls experiences like these “moments of being” — moments in which we become ourselves by making something of the words, and the world, around us.
Once I had read Virginia Woolf, I could fully appreciate that Brown has been teaching all of us this very same lesson for four years. Even before we set foot on this campus, Brown asked us to question and consider how we could make ourselves who we wanted to be. It started, not surprisingly, by teaching us how to read one indispensable book: the course catalog.
Brown’s catalog made sure that we read it actively and not passively. What if we had instead been reading the course catalog for another university, one which had—forgive me for speaking the forbidden words on this campus—a core curriculum? If we had attended that school, all we would have to do is open up the catalog to the required classes for first-years, and register for them.
Brown’s catalog, though, in a manner similar to a Woolf novel, did not make its meaning obvious. Instead, we had to be active readers, not just turning pages, but analyzing them. We had to come to our own conclusions about how to write the story of our college experience, how to make these four years full of moments of being. This is the Brown way of doing things: At our school, we don’t pick classes, we “shop” them. We try them on for size, we take them home and see whether they go with the rest of our academic wardrobe. We consider whether they will dress us as who we want to be. And, sometimes, we take them back to the store.
This analogy may sound trivial, but there is something profound at stake here. It’s what Woolf conveys with the first sentence of Mrs. Dalloway, one of her most famous novels: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” To us as readers, Clarissa Dalloway’s errand might seem insignificant. To her, the artistry and self-expression it enables is the foundation of her empowerment. Even the minute detail of choosing the color and arrangement of the flowers, rather than consigning that decision to someone else, is an opportunity for Clarissa to establish herself as an individual.
To me, Clarissa Dalloway sounds like a Brown student. Here at Brown, we have learned to celebrate our power to make our own decisions. Even the choices that seemed most inconsequential in the moment, the classes we shopped and decided not to take, the nights we stayed up late talking to friends when we probably should have been doing work, even the chicken fingers we did or did not eat each Friday, were in fact of great consequence. These moments of being were the choices that made us who we are today.
Brown has given us many gifts, among them the knowledge we’ve accumulated over these four years, the studies into which we’ve delved deeply. At Brown, we’ve learned a straightforward but challenging lesson: that learning should not be a process in which truths are handed down to us, neatly prepared and packaged for our use. Through this lesson, Brown has challenged us to write ourselves in our own words.
And the truth is that being one’s own author isn’t easy. It involves making mistakes. But because we have learned to make choices and to write our own narratives, we know that, when we do make mistakes, we will not have to play the part of the tragic hero. We will not be fated by destiny to fulfill one specific conclusion. Instead, as both protagonists in and authors of our stories, we will have the agency to re-write ourselves, not beholden to the choices we have made, but informed by them, and always capable of choosing anew.
Today, we leave behind the protection and comfort of College Hill and the story of our time at Brown that we’ve been authoring together for the last four years. Now we write the next book in our series. Going forward, we may be asked to fulfill certain pre-written narratives. We can be sure that there will be those around us who will say, “This is the character you must be.” But because of our time at Brown, we know there is another option. We can be inspired by the stories that those before us have written, yet we know that, in the end, our experience will be much richer if we write that narrative ourselves.
In her book, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf talks about the necessity of having a “habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think.” Brown has given us that “habit of freedom” — our education has taught us to examine critically rather than accept unequivocally, to consider different perspectives instead of seeking to confirm our own.
But as Woolf says, having the “habit of freedom” isn’t enough. It must be paired with what she calls “the courage to write exactly what we think.” It’s a daunting prospect, because it constantly asks us to take risks, demanding that we stand up for ourselves as individuals with ideas of our own. True reading, Woolf taught me, happens when we actively engage our texts, making our own meaning from them, rather than hoping the author will provide that meaning for us. True living is no different. There is no epiphany on the final page, no grand conclusion. Just as Brown has taught us, we will make our own meaning as we go — page by page, word by word, moment by moment.