Reporter's Notebook

The Most Formative Literary Passages
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Readers share the words that have shaped their lives and defined their philosophies. To add yours, send us a note:

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Virginia Woolf in a room of her own at Monk's House, her home in Rodmell, East Sussex, England. Wikimedia

Last week, we published a series of formative passages that have prompted readers to confront deep existential questions. This week, more readers look to literature for answers and guidance—and sometimes a challenge. Jenny Bhatt writes:

I first came across a worn-down copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own at age 18 in a tiny “raddiwala” (used paper/scrap collector) shack in Bombay, India. Reading it all the way through that evening, I went alternately hot and cold at various passages. Like the Girton College women [to whom Woolf addressed the essay], I was trying to decide what to do next with my life, as the options for someone of my gender, class, and caste in India then were limited and all led to a lifetime of housewifery. I had wanted be a journalist, a writer, and had been told it was not a respectable profession. I had heard the ridicule Woolf had described: “The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?”

At the time, this was a major revelation (she elaborated it beautifully and compellingly over several pages, of course):

Intellectual freedom depends on material things. Poetry depends on intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.

And this part was as if she was talking directly to me:

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream. For I am by no mean confining you to fiction. If you would please me—and there are thousands like me—you would write books of history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science. …     

Young women, you are, in my opinion, disgracefully ignorant. You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or led an army into battle. The plays of Shakespeare are not by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilization. What is your excuse?

Fyodor Dostoevsky's notes for a chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. Wikimedia

Last week, I invited readers to send in the literary passages that most spoke to them and shaped them. Here’s Jen, with a passage from Dostoevsky:

I first read The Brothers Karamazov when I was 17, on a rocky family vacation. At first, it was a melodramatic Russian escape from my fighting parents’ slow-ending marriage. But then I got to the chapter “Rebellion.” I couldn’t look away from the page. It was my teenage introduction to the existential unfairness of the world. It was heartbreaking and exhilarating, depressing and empowering. Even now when I read it, my heart beats faster as Ivan breathlessly works his way up to his declaration. He feels as real to me as the impossible dilemma with which he struggles.

It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to “dear, kind God”! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.

Adam Bielka wrestled with similar questions after reading a very different text, The Answer by K.A. Applegate:

In the ending of the Animorphs series, the titular child superheroes manage to take control of the mothership of the Yeerks—a race of alien parasites intent on enslaving all of humanity, and the Animorphs’ main antagonists. At this moment the Animorphs’ leader, Jake, considers whether to massacre the Yeerks aboard by flushing them into space.

Seventeen thousand. Living creatures. Thinking creatures. How could I give this order? Even for victory. Even to save Rachel. How could I give this kind of order?

They could have stayed home, I thought. No one had asked them to come to Earth. Not my fault. Not my fault, theirs. No more than they deserved. Aliens. Parasites. Subhuman.

“Flush them,” I said.

Having spent over fifty books watching the noble Animorphs fight the Yeerks, I had internalized a deep hatred for them. At the time I first read this, I full-heartedly agreed with the decision to massacre them, despite the fact they posed no longer posed a threat. Later, after some reflection, both Jake and I reconsidered the moral stakes, and regretted the moment’s extreme vitriol.

This passage stuck with me because it pointed to a dark part of my own soul. It was a jarring picture of how noble causes can turn horrible so quickly, and how easy it was to internalize hate and dehumanize enemies. An important lesson, and one that really shattered my confidence that I was an inherently good person.

I remember Animorphs as a staple of my middle-school-library shelves, which makes me think of another turn our literary-passage series could take: Can you recall a children’s book or young adult novel in particular that shaped your views growing up? If so, let us know. Emma has one:

In high school, I discovered Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and I still maintain that it was the best discovery of my life.

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.