Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Books are like wine...

...and here's why (even though I am no connoisseur of wine):  it isn't necessarily that books appreciate with age, it's that, like wines, there is a right time to experience them.

Case in point: Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.

I have read this book twice previously, once in grad school and once during an NEH Seminar For The Humanities on Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf at Tufts University in 1990.  But I didn't get the book either time.  Oh, I did my duty and read it.  I studied it.  I paid attention.  At the seminar, I was completely focused: I even participated in the creation of the t-shirt, which pulled out salient quotations from the book for humorous purposes.  But I didn't get the book.

Enter the app called GoodReads.  I don't remember how it came on my radar or why I downloaded it a week or so ago, but as soon as I did and started looking around at what books it offered (free=classic), there was Virginia Woolf's "masterpiece," only this time with reviews from readers.  And when I read those reviews, which gushed, I realized that I had probably missed something.  So, I added it to my library and started reading it.  

Right now, I'm about 52% through it.  Perhaps some of you will say that isn't conclusive.  But the fact remains that in my sometimes-literary opinion, it is one of the very few seminal works of the 20th Century, alongside the top works of Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway, and others.  Why? Because it handles stream-of-consciousness masterfully, and I didn't realize that before.  I just thought that it was a book where nothing happened.  That criticism, of course, could be leveled at books by those other literary giants, as well.

What Woolf does so well is to move into the minds of a variety of characters who have gathered for vacation on an island off the British coast.  What does happen? Well, not much. The first third of the book involves the inner lives of a series of characters while the "main character" Mrs. Ramsay sits and reads a book to her child in the early evening before dinner.  What Woolf does so well is to provide us with the depth of thought in these characters as they navigate a mundane day--the doubts, jealousies, loves, admirations, aspirations, acceptances of these people, all of whom who have gathered around a family led by a once-brilliant philosopher and managed by his wife.

What is it that suddenly this book speaks to me when it never has before?  Why is it that the mention of this book makes others shudder when I mention it?  I know why.  It's because they had the same experience with it that I did.   Trust me, reader, I am no enlightened reader, no deep critic of literature.  I know how to work through a tough book sometimes, and that's about it.  No, my question is why I now feel in sync with the book, why I am now willing to embrace it, especially when it re-entered my life so randomly?

Which is not to say that book is changing my life or anything like that. I merely understand the small insights of the characters in ways that I didn't before.  And that cannot have been planned by me or by anyone else.  To The Lighthouse just showed up again at my door and, for whatever reason, I was ready to take it in.

Books are a great mystery, especially the how of why we meet them when we do.  I have read only one other book this break, The Perks Of  Being A Wallflower, and that only because it was "on sale" on a digital website.  I thought it was a pretty amazing book, but I can't explain my embrace of it as anything but passive at best, inexplicable more likely.  I had heard of the book.  I knew it was a failed movie.  I don't know why I started adding it.  But I did.

My guess is that the vast expanse of books, the whole notion of putting words to paper, is so special that even many of the worst of books have much to say to us if we encounter them at a time when we are open to their insights, Even though we have no idea when that might be, so that almost any book at that moment will give us something. Would it so happen that the book in question is a great work, well, then, the chances that we might get something semi-profound out of it are enhanced.

For me, with Virginia Woolf, the realization that other people, even fictional, have thought some of the same thoughts that I have, have attempted to manage social settings in the same way was quite reassuring.  We spend so much time (well, all of it) stuck in our own minds, that the continuous deep glimpses into the precarious, generous or self-serving, whimsical observations of the characters in To The Lighthouse allows me to step outside and look around into others a bit.  And, really, there isn't all that much else that the book is about.  It is, perhaps, the most masterful creation of the inner world that we have, without sensation or plot considerations to drive it.

If, indeed, a book is like a bottle of wine, then the simile works even better for me as an unschooled drinker of the grape.  On the occasions when I open a bottle, I never know whether it will taste good to me, whether or not it is "appropriate" to the setting of food or circumstance.  In fact, it's rare that I even recognize when I've opened the same wine previously.  More likely, I've purchased it because of a recommendation or an upcoming event or because it was a good buy and therefore I thought I couldn't pass it up, like Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.  And, to finish the comparison, I have no idea whether you would enjoy the book.  We all have our own preferences, and mine have changed, I know not why, since the last time I cracked it open.

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