From Spinoza to Proust, Books Have Changed Me (Opinion)

Imagine for a moment how bleak your life would be if those certain life-changing experiences had not occurred – you know the ones. The moments that revealed the complexities of reality and altered your perspective and passions. For readers, these experiences often come in the form of a book. Unlike scientists who find their telos in the theory of evolution or mathematicians who find inexpressible pleasure in contemplating Plato’s world of forms, we readers find enlightenment on the printed page.

I had such an experience for the first time when I was in my first year of high school. Baruch Spinoza, the famous philosopher, and his book, Ethics, de-mythicized the philosophical jargon that bantered around in my head and expanded the universe for me from the constricted enclosures of my classrooms to something vast and whole. My parochial interests, habits, and concerns may change from year to year and, indeed, from minute to minute, but my love of Spinoza has endured. I hope you all have such an experience. They are amongst those spots of time which Wordsworth claimed make life worth living.

Of course, as readers, we should all have more than one favourite author in more than one preferred genre. People who read just novels or history books or tomes on philosophy should also read poetry. We must read the masterpieces of our species, even if it kills us. The length of some books may seem to invite such a… happy ending for the reader. The time that it takes us to read some ponderous tomes can seem like a lifetime.

(Image: Marcel Proust)

But is it vanity that compels a novelist to write long, multi-volume novels, or is it genius? It is up to the individual reader to decide. I have already decided that Marcel Proust, another of my life-changing authors, was a genius, just as Kant or Gibbon was. Kant revolutionized literature by freeing the German mind; Gibbon raised history from the level of drudgery and drunk rantings to the pinnacle of art (and he, in my opinion, has never been surpassed); Proust, however, raised nothing. The novel was already an art, but it was a canvas with little colour and imagery. Proust is to novelists what colour is to painters; he gives evocation to emotions, food for curiosity, and musical prose to receptive ears. In the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time one finds oneself constantly relearning the meaning of life as Proust’s narrator tries to figure how to overcome his horrendous case of writer’s block.

Proust can really only be found by word of mouth; one rarely finds him on the syllabus of an English class, and even less often will one find philosophers or historians taking much interest in him. He can only be taken in whole; like true philosophy and history, he cannot be reduced to a specialized study. One has a pre-Proust and a post-Proust life; like Kierkegaard’s life lesson, we may live forward, but Proust is part of our intellectual equipment that will never be discarded. He becomes part of us as like no other author, save for a select few (Gibbon the sarcastic and humane for me, Shakespeare for us all), can. He is the uninvited intellectual conquistador of our thoughts.

Proust’s novel is long, and it may take you years to finish all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Proust never finished the novel before his early death, and he spent the last decades writing and redrafting an unruly tome. But as all great art takes a great time to finish, the contemplation of any masterpiece can only end on our deathbeds. Proust is the ultimate anti-materialist – Iris Murdoch thought that he wrote like an angel. Shelby Foote, the writer of many novels and the joyously readable The Civil War: A Narrative, believed that Shakespeare and Proust were the greatest writers in the Western Canon. Virginia Woolf almost never wrote a book because of Proust; he left her in despair. Even before she finished In Search of Lost Time, she despaired of ever competing with the master. However, like all masters, she rebelled against her teacher. Such should be recommendation enough.


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