Favorite Things: Jennifer Toms and her first-edition Virginia Woolf

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Jennifer Toms is known locally as the bassist and vocalist for Scary Women, a Lansing-based rock ‘n roll outfit. The four-piece will echo the riot grrrl energy of Bikini Kill on one track, and then dish out some visceral, Patti Smith-inspired punk on the next. When she’s not on stage belting out her lyric sheets, Toms works as a literature professor at Oakland University. With a job title like that, her favorite thing should come as no surprise. Here’s what she had to say:

My favorite thing is a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” published in 1929. This book is special, not just for the startling beauty of Woolf’s writing, but also as an artifact that speaks to Woolf’s life and her philosophies about gender.

At first glance, one is struck by the artwork on the cover. This woodcut was created by Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, a painter and interior designer. The book was published by Woolf herself and her husband, novelist Leonard Woolf.

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf argues that the socioeconomic privileges and freedoms enjoyed by male writers must be extended to women authors as well. A room of one’s own is a space of independence and creativity. Without even reading the text, one has proof of Woolf’s argument regarding women’s independence: here is a book written by a woman, illustrated by a woman and published by a woman’s independent press. The book is powerful as literature because of its stunning poetic language and its ardent feminism. It’s powerful as an object because it literally embodies Woolf’s claim to independence.

The lovely little volume is very delicately worn and has that warm scent of old paper and ink. I like to imagine the many hands it’s passed through before very, fortunately, landing in mine. My exceptionally kind and giving parents bought me the book during my mad Woolf phase, which has lasted at least two decades. Very happily, I now have the amazing opportunity to teach Woolf’s texts, including this one. I bring in my book every semester, so it passes through my students’ hands, as well.

I choose this book because it’s an object that gives me great joy just to look at and imagine its history from when it left Woolf’s press and came to rest in Lansing with me. Woolf’s writing is immensely meaningful to me as a feminist and as a lover of literature. Reading her work quite literally moves me to tears sometimes, even in the classroom. How embarrassing!

Virginia Woolf’s writing has inspired me politically, creatively and personally. That I can hold one of her books in my hands is both empowering and exceptionally moving.

(This interview was edited and condensed by Rich Tupica. If you have a Favorite Things suggestion, email rich@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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