[This article is based on my reading of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton]
There is a nagging guilt conscience that comes with the thought that one should have at least read a book from an author of Marcel Proust’s stature. I find myself having the same feeling when it comes to the Russian great storytellers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Like all the greats, his reputation has far preceded him. Having been impressed by de Botton’s novel Essays in Love and Religion for Atheists, I was convinced this book must be a treasure trove of gems.
Proust himself devoted much of his earlier life to the study of George Ruskin’s work. As a Ruskin scholar, he embodied the maniacal obsession in the life and texts of a literary great, providing accurate French translations of his book. No mean feat considering he could barely converse in English. And his immersion in Ruskin’s work we find the solution to the captivity we may feel in our favorite writer’s works. Working on Ruskin’s works pulled Proust from the frustrations and desolations of a 28-year-old stay at home who was, by all means, a failure at life till then. Literature literally saved him and Ruskin’s words opened his eyes to the endless possibilities and value in the universe. Through reading, he was able to find rebirth from his existential dread and find new meaning in his life.
We all fall for the temptation that a person who has lived an extraordinary life, made incredible wealth, provided a deep and clear understanding of a particular topic, and seems to be of unlimited intuition should guide us in all our lives tribulations.
As is the idolatry that follows contemporary celebrities in sports, cinema, and entrepreneurship. The writers that changed our perceptions on one issue are elevated to the status of a secular prophet with the right answers to all our deepest insecurities. In a world that is slowly losing faith in religious figures, we are scrambling to get to the books for the gurus of the new age who will be our guides.
This feeling particularly hits very close to home. I’ve often found myself on the wrong end of idealizing people whose books I loved. Like all the “lost boys”, Jordan B. Peterson’s articulate works have found a strong impression in not only me but a huge demographic of young males who have at least watched his click-bait debates on YouTube. Then there’s Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose books make you feel like one of the “smart people”, even though you may be the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot, economist, or bureaucrat whom he doesn’t hide his disdain for. Once you’ve put their books down, Twitter and YouTube algorithms make sure your favorite author and their opinions are now part of your social media. The follow button precedes a cult following.
A Good Book Shouldn’t Silence Your Story
There are countless benefits for reading and according to Proust the greatest lies in the way an author using words can be able to express things in a way one could never have articulated. Like the best advocates, books have the ability to communicate excellently one’s feelings. Or express feelings you didn’t know you had. In the same light, books also can resurrect parts of the joy and human experience that have been deadened by the routines of life.
Even the greatest masterpieces are by design lacking and fundamentally flawed. Such inevitable realizations despite the feeling of nihilism they incite are the exact places where our stories should begin.
We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel; it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so.Alain de Botton – How Proust Can Change Your Life
Despite how intriguing the insights within books, reading shouldn’t become a treasure hunt for unearthing hidden gems but rather viewed as incitements. Books even the best of them could never provide the answers we are looking for, only dogma and propaganda can claim to do so. The best a good book can do is nudge us to a better direction.
There would come a moment with every book when we would feel that something was incongruous, misunderstood, or constraining, and it would give us a responsibility to leave our guide behind and continue our thoughts alone.Alain de Botton – How Proust Can Change Your Life
After reading a book that was so beautifully written, so perfect, and the author so eloquent, the motivation to speak out is often clouded with the nagging feeling that despite our best efforts we could never produce anything as good. A cruel indictment on ourselves. Reading about other people’s successes and failures (even with the odd exaggerations), our own struggles feel diminished. What was a sort of motivation now seems to gag our own experiences. Hence the inevitable fetishization of other’s lives.
Other than the need of being needlessly contrarian, the only thing that makes one write is the feeling that there is a lack in what one reads. Finding the perfect book all but cripples our voice. Reading therefore should be in order to learn about what we feel and develop our thoughts. Opening a book should be a journey to find our innermost thoughts even if it’s anothers’ words that guide us along the way. In that, we learn who we are and hopefully sometimes gain valuable insights, then we can leave our guides and inevitably go forth alone and write our own story that hopefully some younger soul would be foolish enough to swear by.
Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.Alain de Botton – How Proust Can Change Your Life