Now I had too many ideas—some surprisingly close to the truth, some just utter madness—but they were all jumbled together, and my mind was woolfing too fast to stop and settle on just one.”—The Thieves of Manhattan
by Adam Langer
It may seem strange to say you fell in love with someone whose face you can barely remember, whose words you can hardly recall. But that’s sort of how it was for me—when I fell in love with a book, it was with one whose plot has almost completely faded from memory.
The year was 2001. I had just recently moved from Chicago to New York. To steal a line from Jack Kerouac, I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother talking about, except to say that, for the previous half-year, I had been unable to read in the way that I used to. The book I was trying to power my way through—Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again—was bumming me out, both because of the madly desperate fever dream quality of the prose, written by a man in the throes of fatal illness, and because, in a literal sense, I could barely focus on it. Whenever I would read more than a page or two, my vision would get fuzzy, I would feel unbalanced, I would have to close my eyes or squint before I could try to read another page.
For the same reason, I was having trouble writing—I could write a paragraph or two, but then I would have to stop, take a breath, shut my eyes before I could write anything more. I needed something to inspire me, get me out of my funk, but I didn’t know what it would be.
Almost at random, I picked up a copy of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. As a student, I had never had either the patience or the intellect to appreciate Woolf’s writing; I was able to write decent parodies of Mrs. Dalloway, but that didn’t mean I really understood it. I struggled through the first page or so, the way I always struggle through just about any first page when I’m learning how to immerse myself in a particular author’s world view. Nothing much happens in these first paragraphs—Mrs. Ramsay assures her six-year-old son James that they will go to the lighthouse tomorrow if the weather is “fine.”
But when I read the next page, when James’s hopes are dashed by his father who declares, “But it won’t be fine,” something was already happening to me as a reader. I was being completely transported into the mind of a six-year-old boy, whose fragile aspirations could be so easily shattered. For the next 250 or so pages, I found myself inside a writer’s mind and world in a way I had hardly ever experienced before. I was Mrs. Ramsay, I was Mr. Ramsay, I was James, and I was Lily Briscoe, and I was a passel of other characters whose names I can no longer remember.
To The Lighthouse wasn’t the only Woolf book that had that effect on me. It wasn’t a one-night stand; it was a reader truly falling in love with an author’s words. No matter what I read of Woolf’s, whether it was Night and Day or Between The Acts or Orlando or even Mrs. Dalloway, which I had dismissed so stupidly so many years earlier, I felt as if I was tripping on some crazy literary drug, one that could put me into the mindset of any character. No writer but Virginia Woolf had ever had that effect on me.
Oh, and one more important thing happened when I fell in love with Woolf’s work; I found that I was able to write again, and I haven’t really stopped since.
Today, I would probably flunk any quiz about the plot of To The Lighthouse or just about any other Woolf novel I’ve read. But what remains for me is the intensely empathetic and empathetically intense feeling I have whenever I think of those books or whenever I open them up to a random page.
Sometimes passions fade over time, and I’m not sure I would say that I’m still in love with To The Lighthouse or that I remember her well. Maybe I’m fickle; right now, I have a deeper passion for a newer lover called The Waves; I’m sure you’re familiar with the author.