by Dennis Abrams
A couple of days ago, I posted part of Alain de Botton’s final chapter in How Proust Can Change Your Life,” “How to Put Books Down,” and specifically the section of that chapter entitled “The Limitations of Reading.” That section ended with a quote from Proust, “Reading ins on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.” Today, the continuation…
“However, Proust was singularly aware of how tempting it was to believe that reading could constitute our entire spiritual life, which led him to formulate some careful lines of instruction on a responsible approach to books:
‘As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary. It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place, when the truth no longer appears to us as an ideal which we can realize only by the intimate progress of our own thought and the efforts of our heart, but as something material, deposited between the leaves of books like a honey fully prepared by others and which we need only take the trouble to reach down from the shelves of libraries and then sample passively in a perfect repose of mind and body.’
Because books are so good at helping us become aware of certain things we feel, Proust recognized the ease with which we could be tempted to leave the entire task of interpreting our lives to these objects.
He gave an example in his novel of such excessive reliance in a vignette about a man reading the works of La Bruyere. He pictured him coming across the following aphorism in the pages of Les Caractieres:
“Men often want to love, without managing to do so: they seek their own ruin without being able to attain it, and, if I can put it thus, they are forced against their will to be remain free.’
Because this suitor had tried unsuccessfully for years to make himself loved by a woman who would only have made him unhappy if she had loved him, Proust conjectured that the link between his own life and the aphorism would deeply move this unfortunate character. He would now read the passage over and over again, swelling it with meaning until it was ready to burst, appending to the aphorism a million words and the most stirring memories of his own life, repeating it with immense joy because it seemed so beautiful and so true.
Though it was undoubtedly a crystallization of many aspects of this man’s experience, Proust implied that such extreme enthusiasm for La Bruyere’s thought would at some point distract the man from the particularities of his own feelings. The aphorism might have helped him to understand part of his story, but it did not reflect it exactly; in order fully to capture his romantic misfortunes, the sentence would have had to read, ‘Men often want to be loved…” rather than ‘Men often want to love.’ It wasn’t a major differe3nce, but it was a symbol of the way that books, even when they brilliantly articulate some of our experiences, may nevertheless leave others behind.
It obligates us to read with care, to welcome the insights books give us, but not to subjugate our independence, or smother the nuances of our own love life in the process.”