I’m a fan of summer reading. When I was a child, my mother, Polly, provided us with Beatrix Potter, The Flower Fairies, The Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles—anything imaginative and colorful she could find on the shelves of her library or at the local bookstore. Our neighbor, Jane, on the other hand, took us to the library, where she introduced us to Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings, and all those orange biographies of the childhood of every man or woman a 1960s view of American history deemed important—earnest, realistic books which we read as quickly as possible so that the thermometer we had drawn on manila paper to measure our books-toward-goal could rise as quickly as the Texas heat.
My mother never worried whether we finished our books or not. If we wanted to stop midway and get out watercolors to copy the beautiful botanical outfits of the flower fairies, or make chamomile tea like Mrs. Rabbit did for naughty Peter, we were engaging with our books, and that was all that mattered. Sometimes she would interrupt our reading to recite Winnie Ille Pu— Ecce Eduardus Ursus Scolis Nunc Tump Tump–to us, or encourage us to memorize a poem—Annabel Lee anyone?
My mother and Jane loved and respected each other, but both would make comments over the short hurricane fence that separated our yards about what children really needed—in more areas than just summer reading. And lucky me that I was exposed, saturated in fact, in both of their approaches. I love to read. I have a college degree in reading. And I am always ready for a book adventure.
This summer, I went on a literary trip that I had already experienced. The Cathedral Reads summer reading program featured Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The last time I read this renowned novel was when I was getting that degree, when the idea was just dawning on me that books were not just for a summer afternoon’s pleasure, but instead could make sense of the widening world.
When I first read To the Lighthouse, I was floored. There was neither a clear excursion to pick blueberries nor talking teddy bears. There was no plot, and who was speaking anyway? Several lectures later, I calmed down enough to understand that Virginia Woolf was x-raying the thoughts of her characters. I could finally see what other people were thinking! These characters were having thoughts about each other that not only made perfect sense, they made the world seem more sensible. It was amazing: a new type of book, not Polly or Jane, but Virginia. Something completely different.
Time passed. As Mrs. Ramsay did in To the Lighthouse, my mother died. Jane died. When I returned to the novel this summer, everything was different. This time, I thought I knew what the journey to the lighthouse would be like. I knew that when I lost track of who was speaking, I could double back and pick up their voice again. I knew that I would be hit with wave after wave of revelation about life, explanation after explanation about what makes different types of people tick, and how those people can simultaneously endear themselves to us and drive us away. And I knew that sometimes those waves of words would threaten to capsize me.
If I were a diary keeper, I would go back and read what had most impacted me about Virginia Woolf in my college days. But I don’t have that option. My few distinct recollections of literary revelations were shattered when I re-read the book this summer. Mr. Ramsey’s pursuit of knowledge—he had gotten to Q!—seemed so important back when I had not even rounded the bend on D myself. But this summer, it struck me how literal he was, how judgemental to think his way of thinking was the only path to success, his alphabet the only one that mattered.
I would give anything to talk with my mother or Jane about my return to the Lighthouse. Those conversations would be very different: my mother and I would talk about hospitality, family, Boeuf en Daube, and the inability to ever completely manage a husband; while Jane and I would discuss the importance of bringing woolens to lighthouse children, how many revolutions per hour the lighthouse makes, and Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her father.
In Woolf’s vision of the world, I can have those conversations. She shows me how to telescope the passage of time so that those conversations exist in the same space as my readings of Winnie the Pooh and all the little orange biographies. While my mother and Jane are alive to me in so many memories, habits, and book selections, I still can’t sit down with them and chat.
But I can sit down with you. Are you a Polly reader? A Jane reader? Do you measure your intellectual progress on a linear scale like Mr. Ramsay, or do you make sense of your thoughts through images like Lily Briscoe? Who were you before you read this book, and who are you now? Or did Woolf’s journey to the Lighthouse make you so seasick so you jettisoned your copy off the starboard bow?
No matter. Whether you made the journey this summer, got halfway to the Lighthouse, or held tight to a collegiate animosity towards Woolf and chose not to crack the covers, we have much to discuss. The next time any of us engages with this book, we will be different. Marking our experience with it today will provide an artifact for the future that will show us the path of our reading journey and perhaps offer a few little epiphanies. About our past. About our neighbors. About ourselves.
What did you read, or not read, this summer? Did you mark your thermometer, paint a picture, or flee headlong into beach reading? Whatever your experience, I hope you’ll join us to talk about our summer reading. Canon Zartman will offer us some enlightenment, and we can compare notes. While we can’t promise Boeuf en Daube, there will be snacks. And mostly, there will be good fellowship between the Rite I and Rite II services—a telescoping experience of the past, the present, and the future—a moment in time that Woolf might even consider a religious experience.
For more information on the Cathedral Reads Wrap Up or to view UCLA scholar Emma Ridder’s insightful lectures on Virginia Woolf and To the Lighthouse, click here.
To communicate is our chief business; society and friendship our chief delights; and reading, not to acquire knowledge, not to earn a living, but to extend our intercourse beyond our own time and province.