Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Pride and Prejudice at the Talbot County Free Library
While everyone else seems to throw them off quickly, a simple head cold can leave me flat on my back for weeks—no energy, perfectly miserable, no gumption at all. Naturally enough, for years I thought of this as a misfortune: I'd been dealt a weak genetic hand. But now I know better. For almost every one of those bouts of illness resulted in a similar bout of intensive reading. With nothing else to do, I'd pick an author I wanted to get to know better and read everything he or she had ever written. Looking back on it now, I can thank any number of rhinoviruses for the joy I take in the likes of Wallace Stegner, Alice McDermott, and Wendell Berry.
Still, no matter how poorly I felt, well into my twenties there was one author I resisted. Truth be told, I had a prejudice against her. And of course like most people with a prejudice to confess, I want to make sure you understand all the mitigating circumstances I would like to believe gave rise to mine. When I was in college, the women's movement was just getting off the ground. Writers like Betty Friedan, Susan Sontag, and Gloria Steinem were all the rage, and women authors from the past were being reassessed and duly glorified. A second confession: I have always been suspicious of popularity. When the public runs to an author, I tend to run in the opposite direction. So it was that, when, sometime around my junior year in college, the masses declared the early twentieth century writer Virginia Woolf a genius, one that had been unfairly passed over by the mostly male literary establishment of her time, I remained unpersuaded. Indeed, the nature of her abrupt and very public apotheosis now made her anathema to me.
But it wasn't long before a problem came along to upset this particular, rather prideful applecart. In 1976, I fell head over heels in love with a gorgeous redhead named Melissa McLoud, who, as it turned out, thought Virginia Woolf hung the moon in the sky. I am nothing if not amenable when it comes to appeasing gorgeous redheads, but I drew the line at Virginia Woolf. Or at least I did until yet another rhinovirus came charging down the jungle path and laid me low. With little else to do except lie around bemoaning my fate, I picked up the dog-eared copy of Woolf's To the Lighthouse that Melissa had left suggestively by my bed and began to read.
At first, I'll admit, I found the going a little rough. But after a few pages, I began to catch on to what Woolf was up to. Of course I had read books before in which the story is told from several different points of view, but Woolf doesn't stop there. No, when she eavesdrops upon her characters' musings, she does so wholeheartedly, allowing them to think as all of us in fact do, not in perfectly straight, plot-conforming strokes, but in great rolling swells of thought that sweep across our minds like waves converging and diverging upon a beach—something we see or hear bringing back in perfect detail something we have seen or heard before, the present ending up, as it does for so many of us, inlaid with exquisite little geode-like pockets of time. But trespassing like this upon the very private thoughts of Woolf's characters, we find ourselves—despite those thoughts' meanderings—slowly but surely picking out not just the outlines of a plot but its very flesh and blood, a story as lived by real thinking people just like us. Amazing. You don't read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, you live and breathe it along with Mrs. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe, and all the other wonderful characters that spend a couple of summers together sometime around the turn of the last century in an old, ramshackle cottage on the Isle of Skye.
On Monday evening, March 16, at half past six, in the Easton library, I will be facilitating a discussion for the Easton book group (open to all) of what has long since become my favorite novel, To the Lighthouse. There are over 30 copies of the book (including audio) available through the library's catalogue and Inter-Library Loan service, and in addition to those, I've set a box of spare copies behind the Circulation Desk at the Easton library, so there should be plenty to go around. If anything I've said about Ms. Woolf's artistry interests you, I hope you'll join us on that Monday night.
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