What Virginia Woolf Knew About Making Books

Virginia Woolf thought a lot about her reader. So much so that her essays on writing often perform the neat trick of turning inside-out, eventually revealing themselves to have been, all along, ruminations on reading.

And vice versa. In “How Should One Read a Book?,” Woolf wrote that a novel is “an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing. Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words.”

In Woolf’s mind, there seemed little separating the two roles: writer-and-reader were a unit, a collaboration. But why? What was it in Woolf’s interior world that drew her so close to ours? And why did she often speak of her books in such tactile and spatial terms, as if they were buildings or, as she confessed in her working notes for The Waves, like shapes she labored to make “right” for the reader? Could the very grounded way Woolf thought about her art be rooted to her intimate knowledge of book-binding and printing?

When Woolf was 19, she began to hand-bind her own books. A little over 15 years later, she bought a printing press with her husband, Leonard, and the couple set up Hogarth Press in their Richmond home, outside London. She was as passionate a maker of books as she was an author of books. For Woolf, the distinction between the two wasn’t merely semantic. And while her regard for the reader might be inspiring to any writer, her commitment to making books that stand as beautiful objects is instructive to independent author-publishers in particular.

The main benefit to be gained from making books is it forces you to think more clearly about what a book is. This is necessary in 2012, with all the new and convenient, but mostly inferior, ways of disseminating literature. Today, the key for anyone wishing to plunder ahead in the book trade is to learn to separate the idea of the “text” (the content) from the “codex” (the physical book) — and to nurture the physical book as the space where author’s and reader’s imaginations converge.

Woolf’s habit of equating a book with an architectural space comes in handy right here, where the distinction between a book and its text seems slippery. My favorite thing about reading is that it requires the combined effort of two imaginations — the writer’s and the reader’s. It’s like a conversation conducted by two minds. And, taking a cue from Woolf, I’ve come to think of the codex (the book or website or tablet) as the room in which the conversation takes place. Similarly, I’ve regarded the text as the furniture on which these imaginations rest. We already know the importance of constructing beautiful and comfy furniture that seduces the reader to stay awhile and gab with us. But it’s my strong belief indie-pubs should also focus on building better rooms that are more conducive to the reader’s stay and their exchange with the writer. Let the majors bash out disposable little shacks. Or let them erect high-rises that are imposing in their size but cramped by stingy spacing in the way their type is set.

EPubs and point-and-click print-on-demand solutions? They might be convenient for the would-be author, but they do the reader no favors. Binding your story to a hastily assembled codex (digital or otherwise) is as hospitable a gesture as inviting a guest into your home and making them sit on the radiator or floor. And this is what is so irritating about the 50 Shades phenomenon: the series receives credit for being an indie while also being based on a product that is, in content and packaging, as disposable as what the majors already offer. As a way forward for indies, this is a dead end. Or worse: it is a junction that leads straight into the majors’ jowls.

So if you’ve decided to take the plunge into indie-publishing, why not go all in? I’m not arguing all indie authors become book-binders. But the quality of the thing you’re selling is worth double-consideration. On the asymmetrical playing field that is the publishing industry, indies can’t afford to produce shoddy codices.

In a letter from the spring of 1917, Woolf recalls the first day she and Leonard spent with their press. After two hours sorting out type, one character at a time, Leonard heaved a heavy sigh. “I wish to God we’d never bought the cursed thing,” he said, before adding, with the exaltation that comes with life-affirming epiphanies: “Because I shall never do anything else.”

It was in this very moment the Woolfs learned to tell their texts from their codices. I can’t help but think it was also the moment Woolf’s mind first touched ours.


Andrew Stout is a writer. His journalism has appeared in The Economist, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic online, and The Village Voice, among other publications. He is working on a book about humor in art and design as well as a dictionary of love clichés.


3 replies
  1. David Felon
    David Felon says:

    I very much enjoyed this article. As a career bookseller who loves the texts and the codices, I appreciate Stout’s invocation of the Woolfs and Hogarth Press as examples of the rewards and pleasures to be found in applying creative thought and effort to the codex as and the text. I hope that his message will be heard and heeded. Now, about the spelling error in the headline, maybe y’all could fix that?

  2. David James
    David James says:

    I enjoyed this blog immensely. Ever since I read about AL Carr who began his own press, sewing and binding and then selling his own books I’ve admired the devotion to both crafts of writing and producing a physically beautiful object, and I’ve thought, one day … and that’s finally what I’ll be doing until I die. The Quagga press launches this summer, with The Scholar’s Tale, text and cover by self and daughter. I do get wearied of reading ebooks with poor or no pagination, and all the errors of spelling, badly spaced text and the overall experience of life in a cabin,


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *