Book Review: How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain De Botton

21 Jul

If you couldn’t tell by now, I have a huge intelligence crush on Alain De Botton.   I am all for taking difficult/obscure ideas to the people, and De Botton is one of the best at this because not only is he super smart, he’s a capable communicator–those two traits inhabit the same person quite rarely.

Anyway, this time his target is Proust,  the writer of In Search of Lost Time, among other things, and you might ask why read a book about Proust if you have no interest in reading anything by Proust anyway?

There’s many reasons why people might not try to read In Search of Lost Timefor one thing it’s six volumes of incredibly dense reading, in fact, I would go so far to say that ISoLT is the second biggest bohemeth behind The Fairie Queene, in terms of muchness.  As for the denseness, Proust has a habit of focusing on each and every detail to such a minute degree that he simply can wear the reader out.   However, Proust is extremely influential and is one of the greatest minds of all the modernists.

This is where De Botton is handy.  He, with a great bit of humor, shows us what Proustian thought and Proustian living mean.   In Proust’s time, just like now, there was a middle class boredom about life, where everything becomes flat, safe, and predictable.   Also, just like now, there was much public handwringing about the emptiness of such a life, and generally people seemed to think that either being lower class or upper class made one have a real life, while the middle class just had things.

Proust didn’t agree.  Proust had a bunch of theories about beauty and living, and the role of art in people’s lives.   Art is there to show the beauty in things.  The problem is that the art people know is out of date–so their “beauty” is based on things and scenes long gone.   That’s why for some people a rowboat is deemed worthy of a painting while a motorboat would not be.  To Proust there would be as much beauty available at your local McDonalds as there would be in a flower garden, if you only had the trained eye for it.

De Botton explains all this, and even further, in such an entertaining manner that you’ll probably half think to at least give In Search of Lost Time a shot.  Really, pick it up, you won’t be sorry.

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