A week ago, at the behest of my best friend’s continual suggestions, I began a tumultuous journey to the lighthouse.
I’m referring, of course, to the 1927 novel by Virginia Woolf (even though a getaway to an abandoned lighthouse seems remarkably appealing at present). My quest to read the book began at the age 15, following a newfound interest in stream–of–consciousness narration. Refusing to pay the bookstore’s exorbitant costs ($17.94 to be precise), I parsed through Woolf’s prose on the Project Gutenberg platform.
I immersed myself in the stream of consciousness, only to drown in the current. While I’d like to blame the minuscule 12–point Courier New font or the blue–light emanating from my laptop screen, the root of my troubles was that I could not pay attention. Woolf’s sentences paid no heed to page or paragraph barriers; they stumbled over commas and flitted past punctuation. Reading each chapter felt like unspooling a particularly large ball of yarn. My hands became tangled in the knots of her semantics and fatigued by each new strand of thought.
I didn’t understand why Augustus Carmichael asking for an extra bowl of soup required three pages of exposition. I had no appreciation for how Woolf’s narrative voice, much like a roving vagrant, wandered in and out of the homes of her characters’ minds. Most importantly, I couldn’t comprehend why each sentiment had to be documented with such precision. Every time a character had a feeling, no matter how fleeting, the emotion was cataloged alongside at least four metaphors, three similes, and a rhetorical question to boot. Lily Briscoe’s admiration and longing for Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey’s marriage was spoken of in “raptures” for over four pages. Why couldn’t she have just said she was lonely?
I knew I should have liked the book; I just didn’t know why. Growing up, I had been an avid reader, consuming everything from Rick Riordan to Charles Dickens. I used to treat books with an immense amount of reverence, bringing them to the dinner table so I could consume my meal while (somewhat ironically) reading the troubles of Oliver Twist. Somewhere along my teenage years, I had lost that appreciation. The pages turned into Netflix tabs, and novels became episodes with 30–minute run times. I no longer had the patience to sit through movies, flinching at the thought of devoting more than one hour to any given plot line.
Once I reached university, that feeling only magnified. As college students, we’re inundated with a myriad of platforms that value instantaneous understanding over deep comprehension. A 2016 Microsoft study found that the average attention span of teens and young adults was eight seconds. This is shorter than that of a goldfish. Perhaps the age–old analogy about short–term memory should be retired.
There’s no shortage of information telling us how much time we spend online, and how this time has displaced the periods we would have spent reading. But another important consideration is how difficult it is to designate free time as 'reading time.' College students are reporting higher and higher levels of academic stress. Given that much of academia, especially in the humanities discipline, requires intense amounts of reading, it makes sense that students would be averse to adding more pages into their leisure time.
There are numerous proven benefits to reading for leisure. But first, we need to feel like reading can be leisurely.
I chose to re–approach To The Lighthouse for two main reasons. First, because my best friend spoke of it with a reverence she reserves only for jazz music and exceptional coffee. Secondly, because it was a book that forced me to re–evaluate how I felt about reading. Skimming To The Lighthouse is next to impossible because you have to read and absorb each sentence to fully understand its true impact. There is no way to glean true enjoyment of the book without completely devoting yourself to it.
Over the last week, I moved through Woolf’s stream of consciousness with the trepidation and respect it deserves: slowly, carefully, and not all at once. Perhaps we should approach reading for leisure the same way–whether that’s rereading books from our childhood, or taking a second glance at the novels we missed. Either way, there’s no harm in taking it slow, in letting the words wash over you and the prose pull you under. This time around, we’ll know how to swim.