Tell Us: Which Literary Passage Most Defines You?

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Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My favorite passage is about the intimacy of acquaintances. It’s a scene from near the end of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, when a woman who has spent many summers visiting the same family’s home reflects on one of her longtime fellow houseguests:

She did not know what he had done ... but she felt it in him all the same. They only mumbled at each other on staircases; they looked up at the sky and said it will be fine or it won’t be fine. But this was one way of knowing people, she thought: to know the outline, not the detail, to sit in one’s garden and look at the slopes of a hill running purple down into the distant heather. She knew him in that way. She knew that he had changed somehow.

I’ve been a shy, awkward bookworm all my life, and this is the way I know most people: from a distance, by observation, through the mutual understanding one gains simply from sharing a space. The two characters mentioned are a painter and a poet, which makes sense to me: Not only does Woolf’s description sound like a particularly writerly, painterly way of eavesdropping on the world, but it also seems to capture the relationship shared among readers and writers—a kind of intimacy through distance, the brief, deep, tangential connection you get when the same set of words runs through each of your heads.

And so I was thrilled when, in the course of my own online eavesdropping, I saw that a group of Atlantic readers on Disqus—inspired by our ongoing “By Heart” series, in which writers discuss their favorite literary passages—were sharing excerpts from literature that most speak to them. One reader points to “Osamu Tezuka’s incredible manga Phoenix”:

The series is a set of loosely connected stories, jumping back and forth in time. When I first read pieces of it as a teenager, I didn’t really care for it. But for whatever reason, I picked it back up in grad school and was completely blown away upon reread.

There are a lot of amazing stories in Phoenix, but the one I keep coming back to is volume 2, which is about the end of mankind. The world ends in nuclear war, and one lone survivor is given immortality and tasked by the phoenix to bring back mankind. The bulk of the story is dedicated to his isolation, loneliness, and despair, but at the end he finally gets to see the re-emergence of man. Every time I read the final pages it gives me chills. Phoenix deals so much with themes of cycles and rises and falls, and Tezuka was able to subtly inject that into the artwork and panel design. A couple of loose pages without the full weight of the story don't really do it justice, but it's a work I find myself coming back to time and time again.

This next reader’s favorite—from Shakespeare’s Macbeth—is also a rediscovery:

My 10th-grade English teacher made everybody memorize and perform this. We hated him with the heat of 10,000 suns at the time. I am now grateful.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

A reader with a notably literary username—Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse—reaches even further back to the History of the Peloponnesian War:

Thucydides’ account of the civil war in Corcyra affects me every time. It’s the best piece of writing that I know of regarding the terrible logic whereby violence escalates:

So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late, the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of the fear of the opposition.In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one's blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all.

Another reader brings us back to the present—“not a book of classic literature, but a former bestseller that I enjoy”:

Here is a passage from Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. The context is that, after a hellish week in which a friend dies, another friend is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she faces some financial troubles. She and a friend go hiking in a marshy area and end up falling in, covered in mud:

When Neshama and I finally got up to go, I was still sad, but better. This is the most profound spiritual truth I know, that even when we’re most sure that love cannot conquer all, it seems to anyway. It goes down into the rat hole with us, in the guise of our friends, and there it swells and comforts. It gives us second winds, third winds, hundredth winds. I have spent so much time trying to pump my way into feeling the solace that I used to feel in my parents’ arms. But pumping always fails you in the end. The truth is your spirits don't rise until you get way down. Maybe it’s because this—the mud, the bottom—is where it all rises from. Maybe without it, whatever rises would fly off or evaporate before you could even be with it for a moment. But when someone enters that valley with you, that mud, it somehow saves you again. At the marsh, all that mud and one old friend worked like a tenderizing mallet. Where before there had been tough fibers, hardness, and held breath, now there were mud, dirt, water, air, and mess—and I felt soft and clean.

But the most up-voted passage among these readers was the following one, from Fernando Pessoa’s “Masquerades”:

Masquerades disclose the reality of souls. As long as no one sees who we are, we can tell the most intimate details of our life. I sometimes muse over this sketch of a story about a man afflicted by one of those personal tragedies born of extreme shyness who one day, while wearing a mask I don't know where, told another mask all the most personal, most secret, most unthinkable things that could be told about his tragic and serene life. And since no outward detail would give him away, he having disguised even his voice, and since he didn't take careful not of whoever had listened to him, he could enjoy the ample sensation of knowing that somewhere in the world there was someone who knew him as not even his closest and finest friend did. When he walked down the street he would ask himself if this person, or that one, or that person over there might not be the one whom he’d once, wearing a mask, told his most private life. Thus would be born in him a new interest in each person, since each person might be his only, unknown confidant.

It’s a passage that captures, I think, some of the best parts of the internet, which are also some of the best parts of reading: the fact that one person’s thought, expressed behind a screen or a book’s bound cover, could reach countless other people, and that a stranger’s secret can somehow find its way to someone else who understands. That in the private act of reading we can share in the lives of so many others. That we all, to borrow Woolf’s phrase, can know each other in that way.

So, tell us: Is there a literary passage that discloses your reality? A sentence that resonates with a major moment in your life, or simply a turn of phrase that you return to over and over? Can you quote a poem that’s shaped your philosophy, or a book that captures a feeling you’ve longed to express? Send us your favorite passage to and tell us a bit about why it’s been so formative.