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On Reading, Marcel Proust

Koby Ofek

I have countless memories of me reading. They interwind with each other. Some are more vivid. Others are vague. However, there is a certain cloak of reading that covers my childhood memories. I was cradled into reading.

I have never been a good eater. I didn't eat much and I was very selective. Yet there were times my mouth opened to almost anything. It was when I sat on the floor by a small white wooden table in our living room. I was holding a children's' fork, gazing at a book. There was a bowl of soup or noodles or some salad in front of me, I couldn't care.

I remember the way my pupils jumped from one page to another. I didn't stop for words, punctuations, or illustrations. It was more like hovering from beginning to end. The taste of the food blends with my memories of specific titles. There's a certain smell of salad sauce that I relate to a book I read over and over about a boy who lost his laugh (Timm Thaler, by James Kruss). It's a Faustian tale that like many others, shouldn't be read by children.

The protagonist makes a tragic trade with the devil, exchanging his beautiful laugh for the ability to win any bet. One of the trade's unintended implications was the boy's eyes changing from brown to blue. His deep dark brown eyes were apparently somehow connected to his smile and joy, and he lost them for the devil's cold blue eyes.

As a blue-eyed boy myself, I couldn't grasp why the loss of the brown eyes for blue ones was so tragic. I read this book dozens of times, trying to uncover the mysteries of this vicious exchange. I was very troubled to think that someone might come for my eyes too. What would I gain for them? Would it be fair? Is there something wrong with my eyes? Is there an intrinsic sadness in the watery shade of mind's blinders?

The boy in the book used a flaw in the trade mechanism to win back his eyes and soft laughter. He wagered the devil that he would gain his laughter back. If the devil couldn't make him win the bet than the trade is off and both parties reclaim their original assets.

It was a bittersweet affair for me. The brown eyes returned to their rightful owner and the boy got his merry laughter back. The devil was defeated, justice ruled the world and I remained with the blue eyes the boy didn't want.

The smell of my mother's salad dressing evokes this weird feeling. She used a type of olive oil that I no longer use, but I sometimes detect when used in certain restaurants. It's a weird feeling that oil brings you back to a book.

On reading Proust

The most seminal part of Proust's masterpiece In Search Of Lost Time begins with the narrator tasting a madeleine cake dipped in tea. The Madeleine conjures a long episode of involuntary memory of events from the narrator's childhood. Many other tastes, smells, and sounds recall other memories that move the plot forward in this work.

In Search Of Lost Time is a tough book to digest. I didn't read the entire thing. I jumped from one page to another, trying to take in what I could. At some point, it feels more like poetry than literature, but it taught me an important lesson about reading and remembering.

I have an episodic memory of me reading things in certain situations. Today, I use that as a technique for remembering things that I read. I try to connect the circumstances of my current experience of reading with something in the book I'm engaged with right now.

For example, I'm sitting in a coffee shop, having a cappuccino while reading 'On Reading' by Proust. There is a couple with a dog right behind me, and the dog wanted to leave the room. He burst out of the place and a coffee cup shattered on the floor. Glass breaking can be very loud and scary. I now connect it with some of the experiences Proust had with reading in his youth.

It's a memory recall trick but also something that I see as a life augmentation tip. Building a network of connected events give more meaning to things. I connect certain conversations, thoughts, and articles or books that I read to certain events.

Learning to read from Proust

Proust's On Reading is a short essay used as an intro to Sesame and Lilies by British art critic John Ruskin. Proust was fascinated with Ruskin's work and dedicated years to reading, researching, and translating some of his writings.

On Reading became very famous. In it, Proust gives a poetic account of his reading experiences as a child.

1. His first important point is how stories we read as children serve as trigger points for memories and associations that we carry into our adult lives.

2. In that sense, it's not surprising that Proust find books to be a gateway for the reader to read herself rather than what the author wrote. In his own words, what the author writes as conclusions are mere provocations for the reader.

3. Put another way, a book is a way for the reader to meet her own life very intimately. It's an encounter or a dialogue with herself, facilitated by the author's guidance in the book.

There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all: the days we spent with a favorite book

4. I think it's a fair interpretation to Proust to say that for him the ending of a beautiful book contains some sense of tragedy, but it's a limited one. The reader wants it to continue, to learn more about the characters, their life, their world. Successful reading is one where the reader manages to continue the journey after finishing the book.

Or in Proust's words: "The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own, so that at the moment when the book has told us everything it can, it gives rise to the feeling that it has told us nothing.", and in my words:

5. The reader's wisdom begins where the author's ends.

This might attribute a bit of postmodernity to a creator that is much more grounded in modernity but I don't think Proust would argue with the saying that there are no authors without readers.

6. Proust doesn't spare the rod from scholars in general. He writes that scholars read to find proof of their own theories. Anything in a book justifies their assumptions. Regular readers read for the sake of reading, to learn.

Reading Proust is an experience. I recommend seeking to explore the first book in In Search Of Lost Time and skimming it. Highlight a few passages here and there and absorb what you can. Think about the Madeleines of your childhood. The salad dressings that may bring something special into your memory, the books that made your youth special.

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