For an English Literature student, who has pledged four years of life and more money from bank accounts than can be faced without heart palpitations to the study of books, the prospect of choosing just one single novel to accompany you on your travels and to represent the entire human race is a fraught one. When your potential reading list stretches into everything ever written, when you are a self confessed bookworm and when all travel bags ever packed contain more books than changes of clothes, narrowing down your options to a solo title to pack into your spacesuit backpack is difficult. When discomfort, alienation and the feeling of being lost or unsettled is often soothed by an escape to fictional worlds, the idea of an unfamiliar world without books is scary.
This is only made worse by the knowledge that this most extreme form of holiday reading is not just for your eyes only, but also to be used as a standard for all of humanity’s literary output. If people feel uncomfortable whipping out their current reading material on the Tube, then the pressure of opening their chosen pages to an entire species is enough to make anyone wary. The temptation to do as David Bowie did (a temptation that surely plagues most people on a day to day basis, reading list aside) and stuff a copy of Camus into your back pocket, whether you’ve read it or like it or understand it or not, in the hope of prompting some impressed reactions is high. Do we really want to be eternally judged by a heavily leafed copy of The Da Vinci Code?
All of which may make the choice of Virginia Woolf seem like exactly the sort of intellectual literature student panic grab that one might make when confronted by a planet sized book group. Respected as a member of the intellectual heavyweights? Check. Feminist reading possible? Check. Potential to be seen as an artsy, intellectual with Grand Thoughts and Strong Emotions and an interest in Human Thought, capitals necessary? Oh look, three in a row. Yet, while the cover may be passable sticking out of a coat pocket in public, this choice is not that kind of grab at all (I promise). Mrs Dalloway is a good fit for any foreign planet bookshelf because it captures the way the human mind works, in all its jumble and confusion. The outward appearance of the everyday – a stroll down the street, a shopping trip, gossip at a party – is shown to hide flashing thoughts, deeply held desires, fears, anxieties, and layers of memory. It reveals the inner, mental world as its own foreign realm, with every person holding a complex universe inside their head. It’s about how we present ourselves and how we understand where and who we are. Within its very pages it’s the perfect argument against judging a book by its cover, or a person by whatever’s in their backpack.
So maybe that’s a classic English Literature student packing decision, maybe it’s a book that would be better received in book snobbery circles than anything under the Chick Lit or Sci-Fi bookstore banners, but its also a novel that challenges those urges to judge and uncovers how every human constructs their own little identity to put on show. And hey, I could have picked Ulysses.