Surely, I’m not the only one who, when asked, “What are you reading?” answers shyly, almost apologetically, “In Search of Lost Time.” Of course, I absolutely dread the next question, “What is it about?” as much as the quizzical look my admission inspires in the first place. As if the eyes politely blinking before me were a-twinkle with an obvious truth, “Well, I bet you’ve found it—lost time, that is.” Harumph. It’s not that my friends are dilettantes and philistines. It’s just that they don’t read good, imaginative literature. They read books on finance, politics, economics, biology, and other non-fictional reading fare. Once, in a desperate bid to find common ground with a history buff, I suggested he read The Good Earth, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and even Cold Mountain, which given his interest in Civil War history wasn’t a half-bad book recommendation. But damn him to hell, he just smiled, serene and satisfied, “I like historical history.” One of the splendors of Proust is that he teaches us why reading fiction is not merely pleasurable and entertaining but also a highly important and relevant pursuit.
At times the reading of a novel that was at all sad carried me suddenly back, for certain novels are like great but temporary bereavements, abolishing habits, bringing us back into contact with the reality of life.
Although habits and the comforts of familiarity help sustain our identity, they also create no-eye zones, where vast stretches of richly textured experience get lost in an oblivion of awareness. Witnessing Marcel’s jealous mania, sentence after long, unfurling sentence, or Huck’s moral education on the river or Humbert Humbert’s sexual obsession and seductive, word-wielding power (say that three times fast) disrupts habitual ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling. So next time you catch yourself sheepishly answering, “I’m reading Of Time and The River,” lower the boom, instead. Roar like a lion on behalf of narrative fiction, that you’re getting in contact with nature and people, with the world, life, and reality! True, I won’t do it. No way in hell. But I’m pathetically craven that way. Not you.