After years of neglect, I decided to try to read all three volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. How depressing it was to discover a bookmark towards the end of Volume 2. I had no memory of making it so far. I also had virtually no memory of anytihng I had read.
Back to Swann’s Way
I opened the first page of Swann’s Way and sighed. Nothing seemed familiar, except the madeleine part that everyone knows, whether or not they have ever read Proust. I had no memory at all of the pages devoted to the narrator’s childhood bedtime, the excruciatingly detailed agonies of a little boy separated from his mother every night.
Worse, however many times I had read this section in the past (more than I wanted to remember), I found each of its sentences agonizing to read. Each one was so packed with insight and emotion that I had to stop to absorb it. This stopping and starting was distracting, constantly taking me out of the flow. Eventually I stopped trying and just read on, often mindlessly, paying more attention to how many pages I turned than what those pages contained.
Then suddenly, around page 100, everything changed. I found myself carried by the rhythm of the book, my mind engaged in the thoughts. It was not a modern or familiar rhythm, and it did not engage me so readily as Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides, which I was reading concurrently–and which, oddly enough, actually mentions the guilt-ridden compulsion to improve oneself by reading the complete works of Proust!
Once I got it, though, I got it. I had to immerse myself in the older, slower, less familiar pace. I had to let myself dwell and ponder. I had to trust that letting myself move into this new world would take me somewhere worth going.
After a while, this persistence paid off. Suddenly the story was gripping, the words made sense, and the pages flew by quickly.
Accessing Alien Voices
I couldn’t read, I couldn’t concentrate, and then suddenly I could.
When I finally let myself get caught up in Proust’s words, they took my breath away. They so often captured life’s little moments that I never realized were moments. They crystallized tiny truths of what it is to be a person or alive that I immediately recognized but had never put into words.
I admit that I was more eager to return to The Prince of Tides than The Remembrance of Things Past. Nor can I guarantee I will finish—or even make my way back through that second volume. I cannot even guarantee that I will remember anything beyond the madeleine bit if I ever return to it again.
What I can guarantee remembering is that reading is an acquirable, and a losable skill. The habits of mind required to read Proust are very different than those required to read Pat Conroy, not to mention the online news. As reading repertoire changes, we have to change our approach to appreciating it.
The Fault, Dear Brutus
I would never have discovered any of this without persistence. This persistence stemmed from a kind of faith, the faith that the effort to access unfamiliar and inaccessible text would bring a reward.
I have heard English teachers and avid readers alike suggest that this kind of faith is being lost–and, indeed, that it should be lost. Why, they ask, should we bother reading anything that does not speak to us in our own language, or grab us immediately? Why should we even try to access older or alien voices, especially if we believe no new thoughts or stories are being told but are just being re-told in our own language.
Besides, life is too short for boring books.
I certainly agree with the latter sentiment. However, great rewards often come from painful efforts, including efforts to access literature that at first seems unattractive or inaccessible. I may be hopelessly naive, but when I find ways to access other worlds and voices, I almost always discover something new and worth hearing.
We are all too liable to blame inaccessibility on the text when we are ourselves to blame. When I was a teenager, I routinely trained my mind to access texts that others had told me were worth accessing—and, more often than not, reaped a life-changing reward. It seems now, habituated to the ease of the familiar, I am losing this discipline, which stems from trusting that a work that has reached so many others might also reach me.
But all is not lost. Reading Proust reminded me that with faith and persistence I can still find a way to access voices of the other, and voices of the past. No, all is not lost at all, except, perhaps, time itself.