A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

A Room is Not Enough

A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again

By

Orion 258pp £18.99
 

Why read? Furthermore, why read a book about ‘why read?’ This sort of thing can slide into chaos fairly quickly and before you know it you are asking ‘why get out of bed?’ and ‘why do anything at all?’ Borges argued that we read because it makes us happy. If we are reading something that makes us unhappy, then we should stop at once. This approach doesn’t apply if you are trying to pass an exam or assemble flatpack furniture, of course, but Borges meant reading as a form of existential consolation.

Joanna Biggs has written a beautiful, deeply philosophical book about reading as a form of existential consolation. It is also about why she reads some writers more than others. Biggs is a senior editor at Harper’s and a co-founder of Silver Press. Her previous book, All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work (2015), was an original, nuanced investigation into working lives, structured as a collage of interviews. In her latest book, A Life of One’s Own, she deploys another form of this collage technique, amassing stories and memories from her own life and work and from the lives and work of others. What emerges is part memoir, part history and part quest.

At the beginning, Biggs describes how, mired in ‘unexpected events’, she found herself asking: ‘What was worth living for if you lost faith in the traditional goals of a woman’s life? What was worth living for at all – what degree of unhappiness, lostness, chaos was bearable? … And

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