Jesse Jarnow

to the lighthouse

Today, something — I no longer remember what — triggered a memory of a Virginia Woolf quote, from To The Lighthouse. It was a vague, flickering memory, and I could hardly remember the meat of the passage. So I went looking through my copy of To The Lighthouse, probably not opened since sophomore year, and thumbed through the 20-year-old me’s underlines and bent-back page corners. I don’t think I quite understood the book, though I think I thought I did at the time. I found the quote without too much trouble…

…like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. …Still, if he could reach R it would be something.

…but felt little connection to the vast meaning I once thought it had. We tend to think of books strictly as unchanging vessels of information. That is, a book on my shelf exists precisely so I can find the page with the words that contain the knowledge I desire. But books are very much temporal experiences, and reading one is an action that one takes, same as going to the market or climbing a mountain. My memories of To The Lighthouse are dreamy and indistinct, possessing autonomy equal to memories of things I actually physically did during the same period of time as I read it.

When I thought of the above quote, I was remembering it as an experience: a eureka! moment that occurred only after I’d read the previous 33 pages. It was information I am now unable to access, the words — the same, exact words — lingering on the page, teasing.