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How should one read a book?
Some Virginia Woolf and the most classic cocktail of them all...
This week, I’m opting for two classics: Virginia Woolf and the original Manhattan cocktail. At this point in my life, as a serial re-reader of A Room of One’s Own, I’m on a first-name basis with Virginia Woolf. Her essay, How Should One Read a Book?, was published as a standalone piece for the first time in 2020, previously only in collections. It’s a quiet little book that was displayed near the checkout in the New York Public Library gift shop (which is a very dangerous place 😉).
Introduction and Afterword by Sheila Heti
Published 2020, from the 1926 version
If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning.
I don’t want to over-analyze Virginia’s essay because I don’t want to be the one to establish your preconceptions. I want you to read it on your own.* We bring our authentic selves when we pick up a book and interpret books personally, as they relate to our lives. We are also given a window into the author’s intent, as if there is someone reading over our shoulder.
To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination …
Virginia believes that to fully understand the complexity of writing a novel, you must write for yourself. Consider, she proposes, writing about an event in your life that affected you deeply. Consider the words you would use. How hard is it to describe each moment to a reader? When you understand the difficulty of exposition, she suggests, turn to one of the great novelists** and appreciate their mastery of words and place. When we open a novel, we expect to be transported to a new world; we’re brought there through the intricacy of the writing.
The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself.
Virginia loves biographies and memoirs as much as she loves novels. She explores our feelings as readers when we pick up a memoir or biography, comparing this genre to windows lighting up the past. On poetry, Virginia aims for our heart, as that is what a powerful poem wants from us. Poetry is in the moment, evoking emotion in our Right Now.
Wait for the dust of reading to settle.
Her advice to let the book “settle” after turning the last page spoke to me. I don’t do this often enough. It’s not uncommon for me to jump from book to book, finishing one at midnight and moving to another by 12:02. I need to stop, ruminate on the book I finished, maybe sleep. The next day, I can think back on the book and let it take shape in my mind.
I’m so glad I stumbled onto this essay at the NYPL cash register. Although Virginia uses this essay to express her frustration at critics and the “rules” they impose, it’s her joy of reading, her excitement, that fills the bulk of the essay. I encourage you to read it and take a moment to ponder the gift of books. As for me, I’ll try to take her advice and give the “dust of reading time to settle.”
*You can read Virginia’s essay for free at Notting Hill Editions.
**Great novelists is a bit subjective. It could be Neil Gaiman and . It could be Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Turn to a writer who inspires you and take a moment to appreciate the intricacy of their writing.
Cocktail Pairing: The Classic Manhattan
Last weekend in Chicago, I indulged in my favorite cocktail - the Manhattan. I’ve tried many creative versions (and made some myself), but the original remains my cocktail of choice.
When I make a classic drink, my “cocktail nerd” comes out in full force. First, I check my grandfather’s Old Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide from 1936. Then I check my 2012 edition of the same book because I’m curious if anything has changed (the 2020 edition is the most recent). I might refer to the Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock (1930) to see how it was done in London. The recipe I currently use is the same across all three books, but at the Savoy they opted to shake instead of stir. ***
The original Manhattan appeared in the late 1800s at the Turf Club and took its name. When the Manhattan Club made it a signature drink, the new name seemed to stick. The classic version of this drink is made with Italian sweet vermouth. You can also make a “dry Manhattan” using French dry vermouth. The two have differing flavor profiles. You can also use either bourbon or rye as your whiskey, again with different profiles. I usually select sweet vermouth and rye when I’m in the mood for a Manhattan.
I can’t stress enough to always use high quality ingredients in your cocktails. Feel free to substitute your favorite brands in exchange for what I’ve listed.
1-1/2 oz Woodford Reserve rye or bourbon
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
A couple dashes of Angostura bitters
1-2 Luxardo cherries
Stir the liquids with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add cherries.
One last thing: I recently read a recipe for a Freezer Door Manhattan. Check out the Manhattan in bulk at Neal’s Blood & Whiskey.
***I know James Bond likes his martinis shaken, but a general rule of thumb is to shake when you have juices and stir when you don’t. Think of it as stir = smooth and shake = frothy. Manhattans should be stirred. I’ve yet to figure out why Bond is drinking a Vesper Martini shaken.
Whew! For not reviewing a full book this week, that was a lot to share. I hope you enjoyed it and it made you smile. Halloween horror stories are headed your way next week!
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I’d love to hear from you. What books are you reading? What is your favorite wine or cocktail?