by Ellie Eberlee
It wasn’t meant to become a habit. I’d read the novels before. The essays, too—everyone has. I owned multiple copies of each actual book: the shelves of my bedroom back in Toronto housed three editions of The Voyage Out, two each of Night and Day and Jacob’s Room, five of Mrs. Dalloway, six of To the Lighthouse (including a beloved, rare hardcover edition with watercolor illustrations I’d been given for my twenty-third birthday), and one of The Waves. With me in Brooklyn I had Night and Day, Dalloway, and Lighthouse downloaded on my Kindle. Hell, I had the whole collection on my phone as audiobooks, not that I’d tell anyone—Woolf obsessions are a bit of a cliché among queer white women.
It started slowly. Soon after ending an eight-year relationship in Toronto and moving in with my uncle in Prospect Heights to pursue a career in magazine editing, I began visiting the manuscripts of Virginia Woolf’s novels in the central, Bryant Park branch of the New York Public Library on Saturday afternoons. I didn’t think much of it. Taking an editorial and publishing course at Columbia over the summer and living in student residence, I needed somewhere to write on the weekends—to get away from the frenetic, campus-contained energy of the other twenty-somethings enrolled in the program, all of us vying for the same set of entry-level literary jobs.
I’d visited the holographs of Jacob’s Room, Dalloway, and Lighthouse three years earlier, working on my undergraduate thesis in January 2020. Renewing my library card this June, I thought it might be interesting to see them again. Then, I didn’t exert enough pressure on the idea to figure out why. It was clear, though, once I’d re-registered with Special Collections and called up the manuscript of Lighthouse on microfilm the following weekend, that something about the excursion—about Woolf’s words, internalized over years, about the library’s vaulting Tennessee marble ceilings and the sage, thickly silent interior of the Berg Collection reading room—offered special, storied salience.
Scrolling peripatetically through the film that first day, I found myself keeping Mrs. Ramsay and Charles Tansley company on their way to town in the book’s tenth chapter. I’ve taken that walk more times than I can count. But that Saturday, for the first time since freshman year, I laughed completely uncritically at Mrs. Ramsay’s dismissal of academia (Charles Tansley’s “subject,” she noted blithely, “was now the influence of something upon somebody”). I clicked through the frames to find Mr. Ramsay’s discourse on intellectual achievement and wondered at how close I’d come to applying for a doctorate myself. How close I’d come to staying in a relationship bent, probably, for marriage! It felt like taking a drag, identifying instead with the painter Lily Briscoe, that “independent little creature” who—thank the goddesses of singledom and creative spinsterhood—“need never marry anybody”!
Sitting, squinting, my eyes crossed with strain, the tip of my nose nudging dangerously close to the monitor as I chipped away at Woolf’s signature, lilting scratch, I felt, for a second, like Mrs. Ramsay with her knitting: a self shed of its attachments, “free for the strangest adventures.” Later, winding my way through Midtown and back up and over to Morningside Heights on foot, I relished the hangover from such an unexpected, peculiar sense of presence. It was six o’clock: the sun laid long, honey-colored panes of light across the Upper West Side. Like much of that summer, the temperature rose high into the eighties. Suited tourists spilled from fancy restaurants out onto patios bedecked by bright annuals; summer associates sweat over searingly orange Aperol Spritzes and plates of delicately fried squid curling in the heat.
Me? I walked, I watched—Mrs. Ramsay, “hypnotized” by her lighthouse. Like the scene was “stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in [my] brain, whose bursting would flood [me] with delight.” Because I also “had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness,” and in that moment I also felt the effects of my afternoon “silver the rough waves a little more brightly.” Seeing the light change at Amsterdam and 85th was like surrendering to a stiff, salt-rimmed cocktail after a long but satisfying workday: “the ecstasy burst in [my] eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of [my] mind, and [I] felt,”—looking out over the street, the evening and company I had, so suddenly, claimed for myself in perpetuity—“It is enough! It is enough!”
I returned to the library later that July, thrilled by the prospect of a fleeting new relationship. For a stolen hour between lectures, I read and reread the paragraph in Dalloway about that “quality which can only exist between women.” I shared Clarissa’s giddiness about “coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton”—her awe in “saying aloud, ‘She is beneath this roof…!’” But it wasn’t until I moved back definitively in August, planning to stay and shape a life for myself, that the practice began in earnest.
Woolf’s manuscripts are kept as part of the Berg Collection. According to the New York Public Library’s site, the collection comprises 3,661 items, the largest holding of Virginia Woolf material in the world. It began with the acquisition of her diaries from her husband in 1958. Unsurprisingly, it has expanded since—apparently, they now even have her walking stick, the one she carried the day she drowned herself in the river Oos.
Thinking back, those Saturdays became wonderfully routine wonderfully quickly. The books blurred; reading on microfilm has this effect. I used to approach each title individually, in codexes bound by front and back covers. Now the novels folded one into the next, on the same screen, in subtly worsening handwriting. Was it The Voyage Out or Night and Day I was reading? Was the war ongoing as in Jacob’s Room, or had it ended, leaving Septimus Smith to lose his mind on a park bench in London? And, who was going to buy the flowers herself?
A visit to the Berg Collection unfolds like this: you arrive at the NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at 11:00 on the day of your appointment. (You need an appointment—they won’t let you in otherwise.) From the doorway on 42nd Street, to your right behind a large, square window, is a coat check. You leave the things you don’t need and can’t bring—jackets, backpacks, pens—and take the ones you do and can with you in a thick plastic bag issued by the on-duty security agent. Weighed down by your laptop, this knocks dully against your outer thigh as you board one of two rattling elevators up to the third floor.
The entrance to the Berg Collection Reading Rooms is locked. On your first visit it’ll take you a minute to locate the small, cream-colored buzzer lodged halfway up the left side of the entrance. You press it twice, unsure the first time has had any effect. Meanwhile, vaguely curious, mostly bored tourists cluster around, raising their phones up against the windowed doors to take shitty, soon-to-be-deleted pictures of the room’s interior. The buzzer must have worked: the tourists disperse as the librarian on duty materializes to usher you through—a solid, curly-haired woman who informs you in a low voice that, it being your first visit, you’ll have to sign an extra set of documents agreeing not to publish any images or material without permission.
Ahead of you are two large, warm-wooded tables, their surfaces lightly scored. You sit, you sign, you look around as the librarian checks your library card and government-issued ID. You can’t help noticing that the central reading room of the Berg Collection isn’t very big. You imagine stores and stores of shelves branching out—where? Behind? Below?
A thick librarian’s desk presides over the head of the room, on either side of which hang portraits of the collection’s founders, Albert A. Berg and Henry W. Berg, who are heavily mustached and white and—even in oil-paint—exude the degree of pomposity you’d expect from wealthy, esteemed early-twentieth century collectors and surgeons. In front of and behind you, arched, Edwardian-looking bookshelves lean against camel-colored walls, and, on the left side of the room, the microfilm machine rests on a desk next to a heavy wooden filing cabinet. Today, that space is set up for you. Whatever reels you’ve requested have been retrieved in advance and stacked in their cases under the bottom lip of the vertical monitor. There’s a slip of paper and a sharp black pencil in case you think of any other material you might need in the moment, which you won’t, because you’re happy to read whatever’s at hand for one hour, two, three hours, until five o’clock when the collection closes.
The way I read in the New York Public Library on Saturday afternoons was both more and less intentional than the way I read for work or ordinary pleasure. I wasn’t there simply to take in—according to Barthes, “rereading is no longer consumption, but play,” “that play which is the return of the different”—but to turn over. To savor. Carefully. Consciously. “If we are to read [books] again,” wrote Woolf herself, “we must somehow discriminate. Emotion,” she added, “is our material.”
I went through many emotions seated next to the microfilm machine in the central Berg reading room. A lot of those emotions translated to tears. Probably, I was due. I hadn’t cried much when my relationship ended. Not when I’d left behind the city and country where I was born, the plural, unpursued lives I might have lived there. At the library, I cried for Katherine Hilbery and Ralph Denham. I cried for Jacob and Betty Flanders, for Clarissa Dalloway and poor, poor Septimus Smith. I cried for the Ramsays, who, even after decades of marriage, “could not share that; could not say that.” And I cried, I’ll admit it, for myself: for the fresh, freckle-faced seventeen-year-old who first met those individuals; for the nineteen-, twenty-, and twenty-one-year-olds who sought and resought their presence, looking—for what? Company? An anchor?
One rainy afternoon in September, I was greeted at sign-in by an unexpected beige dossier containing seven yellowed, typeset pages of Jacob’s Room which never made it to print. I read these over and over until I was no longer reading but rereading—until I’d stopped consuming and started savoring, discriminating. The whole time, I felt my edges expanding slightly, my inner eye looking increasingly outward like the subject of the holograph:
Sucking her thumb like a child (her age 19) she lay in the good world; the new world; the world at the end of the tunnel; until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window and there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming…
I don’t know whether I requested the pages by accident or if the librarian mistakenly brought them up. I haven’t scrolled through my online Special Collections record to check. Then as now, I wanted to think of them as an omen, a citywarming gift. I’d just uprooted my life, after all—could this be Woolf’s spectral stamp of approval? Or maybe the goddesses of singledom and creative spinsterhood… Either way, I appreciated the pages’ reminder to stop sucking my thumb like a child, and I chose to read and reread them as a missive from the good world, the new world, the world at the end of the tunnel.
October had broken when, as my Saturday afternoon sojourns came up over negronis with a visiting writer friend, I acknowledged the oddity of the visits. It wasn’t that I’d gone once or twice. That was nerdy, my friend and I agreed, but pretty in keeping with character. That I continued to go with no foreseeable purpose, though, that I blew off brunch dates and fell behind on freelance assignments—wouldn’t it be easier to read the paperbacks on my uncle’s couch in Brooklyn?
It would. To go from Bergen Street to the library at 5th and 42nd on the 2 or 3 took thirty-six minutes. (It was September before I learned to take the B or D from Atlantic Avenue and make it in thirty-one.) Visiting the Berg required intentionality—calling up materials in advance online, ignoring the librarians’ increasing curiosity about my lack of a research project or institutional affiliation. Without a New York driver’s license or state ID, I had to carry my US passport with me for admittance past the Berg’s locked double front doors.
And then, of course, microfilm isn’t an especially efficient or sexy way to read novels. Most capital R romantic encounters with literature take place by candlelight—less so the eerie green cast of a microfilm machine. It’s only just possible to imagine a time when the machines looked modern. Now, they squat like ugly, out-of-commission spaceships. Turned on, they thrum with discernible effort.
Often, making sense of Woolf’s scratches necessitated zooming in and clicking repeatedly until the frame shuddered into focus on the accompanying monitor. Often, the machine protested, stalling and sputtering loudly like a rusty boat motor. Coupled with Woolf’s handwriting and constant crossings-out—which, by the time she was drafting Lighthouse in 1926, were harrowing at best—the exercise was inflected with dorky sadism.
Mid-September, I began walking to the library. Out along Atlantic Avenue to Flatbush, over the Manhattan Bridge and up through the Bowery, where I’d tack my way over toward Bryant Park. The trip took two hours. Enough time to negate whatever healing the blister on the back of my right foot had undergone in the intervening week; enough time to reflect, consciously, on what I hoped to find at the other end. On why I was going, again, to read books I’d already read, in illegible cursive using a persnickety machine.
Maggie Nelson writes about “the pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths.” She posits that we may have to “write the same book over and over again—not because [we’re] stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.” The same might be said of reading. Walking out to the library on Saturday mornings, I realized I was going because I’d discovered the pleasure of staging encounters with a self which was at once capricious and constant. I was going, in the most intentional way I’d subconsciously conceived of, to read the same books over and over again, because those were the books by which I had understood myself—into which I had, in effect, inscribed myself—since the age of seventeen. Because such revisitations constitute a life.
That the texts had been so visibly revisited by Woolf was part of it. A Room of One’s Own famously avers that “we think back through our mothers, if we are women.” In Woolf’s marginalia and revisions I found license to think back and think back again: to rework and reject ideas so ferociously that they warranted not only crossings out of a horizontal kind, but a sort of squiggly vertical overlay reminiscent of long, ribboning tendrils of kelp seaweed. Often—or was I imagining it?—these revisions looked kind of fun, dancing and skittering across the page in swift strikes and jovial loops. Clearly, there was freedom in crossing out and casting aside. Testing, Woolf called it, framing rereading as an act of interrogation: “We must go on to test [a text] and riddle it with questions. If nothing survives, well and good; toss it into the waste-paper basket and have done with it. If something survives, place it forever among the treasures of the universe.”
I was in the business of distinguishing between fodder for wastebaskets and treasures of the universe that summer and fall. I still am: of developing a working system of ethics about the world and my place in it, especially in relation to other living beings. Then, as now, this involved a lot of self-doubt. It involved a lot of re-examination and cauterized cynicism as I reified my belief in the importance of care—as I pressed on and sharpened my understanding of what I owe to others and what (if anything) I owe to myself. Inevitably, it entailed a lot of mistake-making in the concrete working out of those ideas.
Woolf’s handwritten novels gave me another forum for revision. For meditation, in the original Buddhist sense of dwelling and cultivation. In rereading, I recognized beliefs I’d previously subscribed to but no longer held. Other passages which once seemed impenetrable, dull and solid blocks of text, now lit up the space behind my brow. The experience was, upon reflection, unsurprising—of rereading, novelist Claire-Louise Bennet writes: “it’s very likely that the sentences I’ll underline in future will be different from the sentences I underlined in the past … you don’t ever step into the same book twice after all.”
Take Lily Briscoe’s desire to know other people. Take her desire to know Mrs. Ramsay:
Sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs. Ramsay’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsay would never know the reason of that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public.
I first read these lines as a freshman. Seventeen-years-old, I skimmed them. To read closely would be to register the ways in which they threatened me. Because I knew the reason underlying Lily Briscoe’s pressure on Mrs. Ramsay’s knees. In an attempt to stave off the threat by staring it down my sophomore year, I returned to the lines in a last-minute, wholly uncreative essay about Lily Briscoe’s repressed sexuality. (Back then, a lot of my creative energy was consumed by repressing my own).
There was the secondary issue. Lily’s championing of human connection over intellect and achievement which was, freshman me felt, surely unforgivable to any card-carrying feminist:
Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knee.
At seventeen, I believed in the paramount, unquestionable importance of inscriptions on tablets. At seventeen, I planned to devote my life to those inscriptions—to the kinds of knowledge that could be written in languages known to (wo)men.
In some sense, I’ve done as much. I got my master’s in English Literature; I write the occasional essay or book review; I’ve finally begun my desired career editing for magazines. But parsing this passage in Woolf’s handwriting on the Berg Collection’s monitor at twenty-four, almost twenty-five, I rubbed up again and again against the idea that intimacy itself is knowledge. (Woolf, too, seemed stuck on this—in the margins next to the passage in her 1926 holograph she rerecorded the phrase “not knowledge, but unity.”) By then, I’d born the heft of two irretrievably lonely pandemic years. I knew how little inscriptions on tablets meant when read in the context of unselected, seemingly unending solitude. It was not knowledge but unity that I desired.
It was to undergo these realizations, to write these notes in the margins, return to these themes, and relearn these emotional truths, that I returned to the New York Public Library on Saturday afternoons. To bear witness over and over as Lily Briscoe leaned her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knee; to wonder over and over with her, “how did one know one thing or another about people, sealed as they were?”
I finished Lighthouse on an October afternoon five days after my twenty-fifth birthday. That week, I’d started to feel settled at my various new jobs. I’d put down a deposit on an apartment in Bed Stuy with a best friend from college, and signed contracts to publish pieces in several literary journals. I’d also bickered with the ex-almost-husband over missing rent receipts and the possibility of staying in touch, and messaged my own Sally Seton—checking in following the eruption of conflict in Israel and Palestine—to no response. At four-fifteen that Saturday, I walked down the stairs from the library’s third floor to the first, mulling, as I always did on finishing Lighthouse, over the significance of the Ramsays’ excursion, of Lily’s last stroke on her canvas. Like Lily, I asked, “how then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that…?”
The questions were weighted with frustration and deep pleasure, bowed beneath the knowledge that I’d be revisiting them for the rest of my life. They were also accompanied by the recognition that this revisitation likely wouldn’t take place for a while. At least, not the following weekend. Whatever I’d come months earlier to dwell in, to cultivate and re-examine, wanted momentary reshelving. Rereading Woolf’s novels over the changeful summer and early fall, I’d shored up some essential, generative understanding. Now, like Lily Briscoe, I’d “had my vision.” For the time being, that was. This moment called for moving forward—for following Mr. Ramsay, who “sprang, lightly like a young man, holding his parcel, on to the rock.” Because, as I stopped by the narrow exit back out onto 42nd Street, reclaiming my backpack to fill with things I’d left behind and ones I’d taken with me, I heard—to borrow Woolf’s words which, though typeset, never saw popular light—something murmuring in the distance. The world, of course.
Ellie Eberlee lives in Brooklyn and edits for the Los Angeles Review of Books and The American Scholar. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Guernica, and The Believer, among other publications.
Image source: Worshae/Unsplash