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Discover why reading Proust is worth the time and effort
on October 13, 2005
Alain de Botton's slim volume contains a reasonably good argument for making the considerable investment of time and energy required to read In Search of Lost Time. I don't recall the author promising that reading his book will change one's life, or that reading Proust's work will necessarily be a life-changing experience--only that it might turn out that way.
I was given a dog-eared copy of How Proust Can Change Your Life by a friend whom I'd told I was considering giving Proust a go. I read maybe half of it, found it amusing, and found the portrayal of Proust amusing as well. The book seemed to fizzle out after that, but what I'd read was enough to get me started on Swann's Way. I had not expected Proust to be comical in any way, but I credit Alain de Botton for illuminating Proust's self-deprecating sense of humor. Had it not been for that, I might never have made it past the famous and seemingly interminable description of juvenile insomnia that opens Swann's Way, much less enjoyed it.
Five years later, I have just finished The Captive and plan to begin The Fugitive within the next month or so. Has Proust changed my life? Well, yes. His work has attuned me to the importance of paying attention, resisting the dulling effects of habit, slowing down, finding meaning in the ordinary rhythms of life, accepting the painful inevitabilities of existence, laughing at my own foibles. There's more, but I won't bore you with it.
Proust is not everyone's cup of tea. But he might be yours. And if he is, you're in for what can, in fact, be a life-changing experience. (At the rate I'm reading him, it could also be a lifelong experience.) You may not be happier, handsomer, thinner, richer, or smarter, but you just might have a better understanding of why being who, what, and where you are is worthy of your attention.
If you're thinking about diving into Proust and not sure that it will be worth the effort, I'd recommend spending a few bucks on this primer first. If it inspires you to move on to the real thing, that's great. If it doesn't, you will have saved yourself hundreds of hours of what could be, for some, utter tedium. And if happiness, beauty, and wealth are what you really want, and you want them now, there's always Dr. Phil.