This question starts with a memory. My mum standing before our bookshelf, scanning the creased spines of the paperbacks. She said, “I want to read a book that will change my life.”
This elusive wish would stir in my mind in my late teens; a time when my love for reading was just beginning to return, after years of waning. I didn’t want to read thoughtful novels, I wanted to reread old favourites. Teen novels, celebrity memoirs, true crime, the same stories again and again and again. Yet, as I began to enjoy reading again, a thought would make itself known to me, like the striking of a match – has this changed me?
“The meaning of this question has stretched and changed the more I’ve read, and the more I’ve realised that books are not concrete mechanisms that drive us through a series of realisations before spurting us out.”
Naively, this desire to be sculpted by a book seemed to branch out from its root as I coursed through the lives of characters, and sprout in the form of doubt when I turned the last page. When would a book cross this impossible threshold? Could words fulfill this objective of alteration? Was I reading properly if in a week’s time I couldn’t remember the names of the characters?
The meaning of this question has stretched and changed the more I’ve read, and the more I’ve realised that books are not concrete mechanisms that drive us through a series of realisations before spurting us out, adorned with fresh outlooks and perspectives. They are shape shifters. They give what they get. The Waves by Virginia Woolf is the novel that taught me this lesson, so in a way, changed my life.
My mum once said to me the sign of a really great book is one that is difficult to get into, but you eventually love. I’m not sure where her authority lies on this matter, but this idea is true to my experience of reading The Waves. I had always wanted to read Woolf’s most experimental novel, but each time I tried I would lose the ability to separate the characters in my mind. This difficulty became the very reason the book means so much to me now.
I finally made it through The Waves during lockdown in March, when the world felt very distant, as if behind a thick pane of glass. The Waves is a novel of closeness. It weaves together the monologues of six friends who grow up together from childhood. Woolf continuously sifts through the ways we align and distance ourselves from others to create our own identity.
How we define ourselves in this way spoke to a curiosity I felt growing up. Being very close with my siblings, I felt the surest sense that if I were to really try, I could begin to see through my brother’s eyes. If I concentrated hard enough I would see what he saw, and eventually experience life as if I were him. The boundaries of the self had not yet solidified. We had barely lived separate lives and I remember distinctly this sense of mental proximity between myself and others.
“I want to read a book that will change my life” means something different to me now. Rather than a wish, the expression itself is a celebration of the escapism granted by literature.”
Have you ever looked at a photograph and realised you had somehow made the image your memory? I’ve definitely absorbed memories that aren’t mine through listening. I felt as if you could scratch away the surface of my skin and below, in the very bedrock of myself, find my brother, my neighbour, my closest friend and all their deepest secrets, fondest places, and things. The Waves makes this membrane its subject.
Woolf explores the closeness of all things: love and hate, joy and sadness, empathy and ego. The book didn’t change anything, rather it affirmed, articulated and comforted. I’ve come to think that reading Woolf is almost like exploring a video game world. The contents of the scenery are summoned as you move; they are created at your own action, and different things appear depending on what you need and what you seek. I’m not sure what The Waves is about, and that’s because it will mean different things to different people. The book responds to you.
“I want to read a book that will change my life” means something different to me now. Rather than a wish, the expression itself is a celebration of the escapism granted by literature. The desire itself matters more than the fulfillment; the possibility of being ‘crossed into’ by a book.
To say those words is to admit that amongst the neurons, the atoms, the bones, the memories and the moods that make us, are the lines, the words, the stirring thoughts of the places and the people that we read.
Imogen grew up in a haunted house in Bristol. She loves swimming and writes poems.