Tell Us: Which Literary Passage Most Defines You?

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

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.