Word on the Street

‘On Being Ill’ joins Virginia Woolf’s essays with her mother’s

“Julia Stephen holding her daughter Virginia,” 1884, from a platinum print by Henry H. H. Cameron.
Smith College
“Julia Stephen holding her daughter Virginia,” 1884, from a platinum print by Henry H. H. Cameron.

Mother and daughter writers

Virginia Woolf was 13 when her mother, Julia Stephen, died of rheumatic fever in 1895. Now essays by mother and daughter have been joined together for the first time in a volume published by the nonprofit Paris Press, based in Western Massachusetts.

The book, available in paperback and handbound letterpress editions, is “On Being Ill: with Notes from Sick Rooms.’’ Woolf’s “On Being Ill” is a mix of meditation and autobiography first published in 1926. Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms,” originally published in 1883, provides detailed instructions on caring for the sick. Paris Press director Jan Freeman notes in her introduction that the “Foods” and “Remedies” sections of Stephen’s essay reflect the standards of the late 19th century and “should not be attempted today.”

“On Being Ill” opens with a lushly descriptive sentence that meanders for close to 200 words. In it, Woolf, no stranger to physical or mental illness, wonders why “illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” She is attuned to the magical properties of the sick bed: “In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality,” she writes.


Woolf biographer Hermione Lee, in an introduction to the essay, provides insight into what was going on in Woolf’s life at the time she wrote “On Being Ill.” Freeman views the book as a fine fulfillment of the press’s mission: to publish groundbreaking work by women writers that has been overlooked. Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, was an accomplished author and editor, yet pairing the essays by mother and daughter makes it clear that, Freeman told Publishers Weekly, “Woolf didn’t become a writer exclusively from the influence of her father.”

Authors on bookstores

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Massachusetts comes out ahead of New York in “My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop” (Black Dog & Leventhal). The book is a love letter as well as a guide to 84 independent bookstores throughout the nation. Writers pay tribute to nine bookstores in Massachusetts and seven in New York. Simon Winchester, author of books about Krakatoa, the Atlantic Ocean, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, has the last word. In the final essay, Winchester, who divides his time between New York City and Massachusetts, pays tribute to the Bookloft, open since 1974 in a strip mall (yes, a strip mall!) in Great Barrington. It is not what you’d imagine a small-town bookshop to be, situated as it is between a hairdresser and a telephone store. Yet staff picks account for 20 percent of the sales and hand selling is the order of the day. What matters, Winchester writes, is that the people who work there “Know Books.”

Coming out

 “Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions” by John C. Norcross (Simon and Schuster)

 “The End of Diabetes: The Eat to Live Plan to Prevent and Reverse Diabetes” by Joel Fuhrman (HarperOne)

 “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home” by Diana Kuan (Ballantine)

Pick of the Week


Christopher Rose of Andover Bookstore in Andover recommends “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham (Random House): “It could be argued that few individuals have had a greater impact on the course of our nation’s history than Jefferson. Meacham’s engaging biography reveals the extraordinary skills of this uniquely gifted and driven man as well as his heart and soul. Jefferson’s story has never been more perfectly told.”

Reach Jan Gardner at JanLGardner@yahoo
. Follow her on Twitter @JanLGardner.