Deserts of the Soul


“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth–rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”  — Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill

I’m in awe of the length and virtuosity of this sentence. The imagery — “what wastes and deserts of the soul…what ancient and obdurate oaks” — is stunning. And the dentist as deity analogy? So witty. Virginia Woolf is a masterly sentence crafter. It takes some serious writing chops to wield a 181-word sentence(!) with grace and lucidity.

This is why we read good books: for the pleasure of encountering, not just engaging stories and clever ideas, but skillful and beautiful writing.

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room,” Austin Kleon writes. If we want to become better thinkers, better writers, better human beings, we should surround ourselves with the best of what’s out there.

We must stretch ourselves upward in order to grow.

[ Photo credit: Keoni Cabral ]

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