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How Proust Can Change Your Life summary

Alain de Botton

Valuable Insights Into Living Your Best Life

4.6 (315 ratings)
26 mins
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    How Proust Can Change Your Life
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    Reading is therapeutic.

    Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time follows its narrator, also named Marcel, as he remembers his life, from early childhood to imminent death, in aristocratic nineteenth-century France. Critics and readers alike have hailed it as a work of genius. But the critic whose approval Proust most desired died four years before the first volume was published in 1913. That critic was his father, Dr. Adrien Proust.

    Adrien Proust was a physician and a medical professor. Like his son, his literary output was prodigious, though the 34 books the elder Proust wrote were on dry, medical topics like disease transmission. 

    The younger Proust often worried that he was a disappointment to his father. Marcel tried and failed to settle on a respectable career. He lasted barely two weeks working in a solicitor’s office. He eschewed a diplomatic career because he couldn’t bear to leave Paris. He quit his post at a library because the books were too dusty. The truth was, all Marcel wanted to do – much to Adrien’s chagrin – was write.

    What’s more, the younger Proust thought literature was just as important, in its own way, as medicine. Marcel believed reading fiction had a therapeutic power. Dr. Proust would almost certainly have dismissed his son’s claim. A novel can offer escapism on a long train ride. It can’t diagnose a case of tuberculosis, or perform an appendectomy. But Dr. Proust couldn’t be more wrong.

    So, what does Alain de Botton say are some of the therapeutic benefits to reading Proust?

    Reading Proust will help you feel at home in works of art. When Proust looked at paintings, he didn’t stop at admiring their composition or the artist’s use of color – he habitually matched the people on the canvas with people from his own life. A friend recalled him studying a portrait of an elderly man by the Renaissance painter Ghirlandaio, painted in 1480, and remarking on its likeness to a well known contemporary aristocrat, the Marquis de Lau. Whether he was reading the latest novel or gazing at a four-hundred-year-old painting, Proust felt at home in works of art, because he was alive to the ways in which they paralleled his own life. 

    When you immerse yourself in Proust, you might begin to develop this habit, too. In Search of Lost Time is populated with the aristocrats, artists, socialites, workers, and peasants of Belle Époque France. At first, their manners might seem remote, their concerns irrelevant to you. But persist, and you will soon find points of resonance between their lives and yours. Persist long enough, and you will learn to see these resonances in other artworks, too. A whole world of culture, from Homer’s ancient epic poems to cutting-edge contemporary performance art, will throw its doors open to you. 

    Reading Proust will also make you less lonely. In the same way that an intense engagement with In Search of Lost Time will allow you to perceive similarities between your world and Proust’s, you will learn to find comfort in the experiences you share with his characters. Every day, we’re liable to experience emotions and impulses that range from the exquisite to the excruciating. How many of the people around us are privy to the full range of our feelings? How attuned are we to the emotions and thoughts of those around us? If you are simmering with resentment over a long-ago fight, or are occasionally gripped, out of the blue, with a keen awareness of your own mortality, do you express these feelings to your colleagues? Your neighbors? Your dentist? Likely not. This can leave you feeling alone and isolated – as though you are the only person who has ever felt or behaved in this specific way. The beauty of the novel is that it, potentially, offers a window onto the deepest, most intimate thoughts and feelings of a whole spectrum of characters. In Search of Lost Time realizes that potential on a grand scale. If you’ve ever felt alone in a thought or a feeling, in the pages of Proust you are certain to meet someone who has shared it.

    Finally, when you read Proust, you will learn more about yourself. Proust himself expressed this idea simplest and best when he wrote, In reality every reader is, when he is reading, reading his own self. To meet yourself, try picking up the first volume of Proust and meeting Marcel in its pages.

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    What is How Proust Can Change Your Life about?

    How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) melds literary biography with a self-help structure to argue that reading the work of twentieth-century French author Marcel Proust is not only culturally enriching, but potentially life-enhancing. Botton’s close reading of Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, offers up surprising and delightful insights into how to live better.

    Who should read How Proust Can Change Your Life?

    • Voracious readers who have yet to embark on In Search of Lost Time
    • Reluctant readers who’d like to read more than they currently do
    • Anyone looking to take on a literary challenge

    About the Author

    Alain de Botton is a philosopher and author. His best-selling books span topics such as atheism, sex, love, work, and architecture. He is the founder of the alternative educational institute, The School of Life.

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