I have neither read nor had the particular desire to read anything by Marcel Proust, and yet, when Gretchen Rubin (one of my favorite contemporary authors) recommended Alain du Button’s How Proust Can Change Your Life in her monthly book club blog post, I was drawn to the title. I am glad that I was. Offering historical information, humor, and bites of wisdom, this easy-to-read blend of literary biography and self-help was a gem. I gained a tremendous appreciation for Proust without having to slog through his seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which I also tremendously appreciated.
Ironically, avoiding a slow process (reading In Search of Lost Time) is very anti-Proustian. A central theme of the book is that much can be gained from taking things slowly. Du Button tells the story of Proust meeting Henri Nicolson, a young French diplomat, and asking him to recount his experience at a peace conference after the Great War. When the diplomat began “we generally met at 10:00” Proust stopped him, wanting to hear all the details. The diplomat went on, and Proust was enraptured.
“An advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process. For Nicolson, an early morning that had been summed by the terse statement “Well, we generally meet at 10.00” had been expanded to reveal handshakes and maps, rustling papers and macaroons – the macaroon acting as a useful symbol, in its seductive sweetness , of what gets noticed when we don’t go trop vite” (46).
Proust’s attitude called me to think about my reading process. I read quickly, which I usually consider an advantage, and especially when I dislike the book I am reading. Recently, I re-read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and despite my desire to like it (I feel sloppy admitting that I don’t like Virginia Woolf), and my attempt to like it (I hoped that reading it for leisure rather than for school might change my outlook) I found it dull, and so I rushed through it…only to turn the last page with a disappointing aversion. When I spoke to Caleb about my distaste, he asked what I thought about a particular scene that had captured him. Though I had just finished the novel, I had no recollection of the scene. I rushed through a novel that I considered boring, but perhaps if I had moved more slowly, like Proust suggests, I wouldn’t have missed the very details that make the novel compelling to so many people.
The next time I find myself desiring to rush through a book, a meal, or a process, I’m going to channel Proust and slow down.