Marcel Proust on Reading and Recapturing Time

If you were to give me the word ‘reading’ and ask me to describe the first thing that it evokes, I’d describe a secluded corner in my grandmother’s garden where an old apricot tree cleaved in two by a bolt of lightning grew a wild canopy and made for a perfect hideaway. I would spend hours reading under the apricot tree’s branches, occasionally reaching for a fuzzy, under-ripe fruit. In my memory it’s not the individual books themselves that stand out, but rather the pleasure of reading and the emotions it inspired. And the sour almond taste of green apricots.

Marcel Proust conceived Journées de Lecture, Days of Reading (public library), as an introduction to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies. Proust had not yet written his novel, but his discovery of the famous Victorian art critic’s work was a major milestone, and in the introductory essay one can already detect the makings of the writer of Remembrance of Things Past. For all of Proust’s admiration of Ruskin, he disagrees with the critic’s statement that books are a conversation with the sages. Instead, Proust finds the pleasure of reading in the way books prompt us to look for answers to life’s riddles on our own. Art is not didactic. It is stimulating. It doesn’t instruct. It inspires.

Proust starts his essay with an invocation of the past.

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book.  Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the uninterrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist.

Proust, one of the best writers who has ever written about childhood, evokes its vulnerability and its complexity. Books and their characters have an important role to play, but it’s quite different from that envisioned by Ruskin. If reading a book is a conversation, Proust sees as a conversation with oneself. Then, there is an important difference between a book and a wise friend.

Reading, unlike conversation, consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought while remaining alone, or in other words, while continuing to bring into play the mental powers we have in solitude and which conversation immediately puts to flight; while remaining open to inspiration, the soul still hard at its fruitful labours upon itself.

Once the book is finished, the real work for the reader begins. Whatever treasures might be in books themselves, to discover them for herself, the reader needs to look outside their pages. Books aren’t a substitute for life. They don’t give us answers, but rather inspire–provoke, to use Proust’s own words–to look for the answers themselves. The most important role of books is that they kindle a desire for such a search.

Indeed, this is one of the great and wondrous characteristics of beautiful books (and one which enables us to understand the simultaneously essential and limited role that reading can play in our spiritual life): that for the author they may be called Conclusions, but for the reader, Provocations.

One may follow Ruskin’s advice not to waste time on worthless books, but then it means not straying from a canon made by others and forgetting that reading is also about pleasure. And taking one’s pleasures too seriously robs them of their spontaneity.

There are many different kinds of books as there are many kinds of readers. Yet, in Proust’s essay, I find the echoes of my own childhood fascination with books. Recalling his days of reading Proust takes us to the places where he read and talks about the objects that surrounded him.  The memories and fantasies arise not out of books he read as a child, but rather around them, like the intertwined branches of the old apricot tree weighed down by the harvests of years past.

Why do you like to read? What are you reading at the moment?

Translations are by Jean Autret and William Burford, Marcel Proust, On Reading, New York, 1971 (public library). The original French version,  Journées de Lecture, Gallimard (public library).

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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67 Comments

  • Mayfly: I enjoyed reading this article, it’s a real treat to read you’re writing!
    Some of my happiest childhood memories are evoked, hot summers and lots of amazing books!
    I’m reading a real little gem called Miss Petigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (1938) it really sparkles with wit and humour, and is light but also has poignancy and substance. The beautifully presented new paperback edition by Persephone Classics is lovely too. April 27, 2018 at 9:16am Reply

    • briony: I read that not so long ago. Such a lovely book. I love those Persephone classics. I’m on a bit of a Louise Doughty quest at the moment. I was glued to Apple Tree Yard, immediately went on to Whatever You Love and I’m now waiting for Dance With Me to arrive. April 27, 2018 at 10:27am Reply

    • Victoria: I found this essay by chance as I was browsing Gallimard’s 2 euro bin, and it was such a treat. Proust writes so poignantly about childhood and about things that form memories of the times past. His essay also made me feel that I was back in the overgrown garden of my childhood. April 27, 2018 at 3:11pm Reply

    • Nora Szekely: I love Miss Pettigrew!!!
      I reread it every other year, it’s a treat.
      Glad you like it too, Mayfly. April 28, 2018 at 2:40pm Reply

      • Mayfly: It really is a treat! Have u seen the film with Frances Mcdormand and Amy Adams? unlike a lot of films based on novels, it’s very true to the original, the wonderful 30’s night club interior is filmed in The Rivolli Ballroom near where I grew up in south east London, and where I got together with my husband, it’s an amazingly glamorous old venue. April 29, 2018 at 2:05pm Reply

    • Carla: I will look Miss Pettigrew up, it’s the type of reading I want now that spring is here. I love those little gems, like Dud Avocado, I Capture the Castle. Light, but have stood the test of time. April 29, 2018 at 7:29am Reply

      • Mayfly: It sounds like u will really enjoy it! April 29, 2018 at 2:05pm Reply

  • Anne: I’m reading The Wizard of Oz with my daughter. 🙂 April 27, 2018 at 9:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Lovely! Hope that she likes it. April 27, 2018 at 3:11pm Reply

  • Bela: V, you should read The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman. Lovely, insightful book. 🙂 April 27, 2018 at 9:59am Reply

  • Brenda: When my children were young, I always made sure that among their holiday gifts…there was a new book to delve into. I had always coached them that if they dedicated themselves to reading – they’d always have a friend to curl up with. Indeed, none of them can stand to put a good book down. My parents weren’t ones to read books – mostly newspapers. My love of novels stemmed from a cousin who would loan me a book with shining eyes and declare “ you’ll love it”! Inside she always wrote: “If this book should ever roam, spank it’s bum and send it home”.
    I always returned her books…& she probably never knew how she inspired my love of a good book. On loan to me from my daughter, I’m reading “If I Die Tonight”, by Alison Gaylin.
    Also, I am reading, for a second time, “Miss Read – Tales from a Village School”. Ahh…for the love of a good book, I am grateful. Have a fine day, everyone. April 27, 2018 at 10:14am Reply

    • Victoria: For me, my grandmothers and my mother were the ones who inspired most of my reading. My grandmother was obsessed with books and her apartment was packed with them. It felt like paradise. April 27, 2018 at 3:13pm Reply

  • Ariadne: For me it was a flashlight and a book under the bedding after evening “lights out” (literally making me breathless at this activity).
    Right now I am reading The Hidden Life of Trees. I appreciate this post and the book selections shared here! April 27, 2018 at 10:28am Reply

    • Figuier: My siblings & I also used to read after bedtime, illicitly, as children. We preferred risking bedside lamps, & in order to avoid detection by my parents (who knew our proclivities and used to carry out spot checks) we kept glasses of water handy by our bedsides, to *pour over the metal lampshade* and so cool it down, removing evidence of usage. I still can’t believe we weren’t all electrocuted!! April 27, 2018 at 12:28pm Reply

      • Figuier: Death by suffocation or by electrocution – either way, we were risking our lives for literature. A noble cause I guess? April 27, 2018 at 12:29pm Reply

      • Victoria: Or climbing a tree and trying to balance on a branch with a book! Talk about the power of books. 🙂 April 27, 2018 at 3:22pm Reply

      • Ariadne: This is too funny! I am so glad you did not get hurt! April 27, 2018 at 3:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: I enjoyed The Hidden Life of Trees so much!

      For me, it was hiding in the garden. Sometimes under the apricot tree and sometimes in it. 🙂 April 27, 2018 at 3:14pm Reply

  • Cyndi: I’m currently reading Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons which is full of humor, wit, and very interesting characters. Next, I’m tackling Proust’s Swann’s Way.

    I also love your articles, Victoria. Always a joy to receive one of your posts.

    I have always loved to read. It’s brought me a lot of happiness, as well as helped through some really rough times. April 27, 2018 at 10:40am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Cyndi!

      Swann’s Way is a beautiful, rewarding book, and even if it’s hard at first, I do recommend persevering with it. It’s one of the books that has given the most to me, at least in the recent years. April 27, 2018 at 3:16pm Reply

    • Nora Szekely: Hi Cyndi,
      Cold comfort farm is hilarious!
      Have you seen the movie with Kate Beckinsale? Great adaptation. April 29, 2018 at 4:43am Reply

      • Carla: Yes Cold Comfort Farm is another little gem. Fun movie too. Le Divorce is a fun book and movie as well. April 29, 2018 at 7:30am Reply

  • Sandra: Because of this blog I read my first Proust book Swan’s Way and it took me the whole summer but I am glad that I did..
    For light (easy read) book : How Proust can Change you Life is hysterical!!!

    Right now I am reading Heirs to a forgotten kingdom (thank you Victoria) and Americanah and in between A Lovers Discourse (Barthes)

    After reading an article The Legacy of Childhood Trauma in the New Yorker written by Junot Diaz, and crying, literally, into my New Yorker magazine my friend gave me The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao to read.

    Also on my list is the Aleppo book you recommended on your blog. From that same blog post about Syria I ordered a bar of soap form the website that you posted for my birthday in March. I am using it everyday and I really love it. The only thing I am unsure about is how to take care of the loofah it came with. Its like a piece of cloth, and I am not sure if I can wash it? Or use soap with it? Anyways, my skin is glowing these days…

    When I think about all the books I have read since this past summer, Spring Snow was the most haunting for me and one of my favorite reads. (Thanks again V!)

    My neighbor thinks my next Proust book should be The Prisoner or Fugitive, any thoughts from anyone else? April 27, 2018 at 11:46am Reply

    • Victoria: You have such a diverse reading list!
      I suggest following Swann’s Way with the second volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. It’s also very moving.

      Alain de Botton’s book on Proust is great, and yes, much recommended. April 27, 2018 at 3:18pm Reply

      • Sandra: Diversity is important for me if I want to read for pleasure

        I will add those books to my list to read for this summer. Makioka Sisters sounds really wonderful…

        Curious to know how many books you read at a time? My max is 2. April 27, 2018 at 3:35pm Reply

        • Victoria: I like everything I read by Tanizaki. He explores human flaws and weaknesses so well, and his characters remain vivid in my memory.

          Before I used to read a score of books at the same time, but now I try to start a book and finish it before moving onto another one. Of course, if I read poetry or very dense texts, it’s hard to do it, and I intersperse such reading with some other subjects. April 29, 2018 at 3:27am Reply

    • Victoria: If you liked Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, why not read something from Tanizaki like Makioka Sisters or Kawabata’s The Dancer of Izu? April 27, 2018 at 3:19pm Reply

    • Cyndi: I love Junot Diaz, and the Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao is beautiful. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! April 27, 2018 at 3:46pm Reply

      • Sandra: Good to know!

        I can tell by the short essay that he wrote for the New Yorker magazine that is writing style is very moving.

        I am not sure what the Brief Wondrous Life is about but I hope I don’t need tissues 😉 April 27, 2018 at 3:52pm Reply

        • Cyndi: Unfortunately, I’m afraid tissues will probably be necessary. Still, it’s a very good read. April 27, 2018 at 5:05pm Reply

          • Elena Wood: I just came back to this thread after commenting to add to my to read list, and realized that I wrote almost the same thing as you! We’ll be reading Oscar Wao “together”, Sandra. 🙂 April 28, 2018 at 1:09pm Reply

            • Sandra: That is great, and maybe share a box of tissues “together” April 28, 2018 at 7:08pm Reply

  • Maria-Anna: I think the power of a good description is making the experience so immediate we believe we are sharing it. Your evocation of reading under the apricot tree is so vivid I feel convinced I have those same childhood memories. But perhaps that’s just what the pleasure of reading tastes like.

    I have a bad habit of continuously buying books, no matter how many I have on the go in that moment, or how many are yet to be read on the shelf (although I am trying to make peace with that fact). I am perhaps a little flighty and my appetite doesn’t always keep up with the speed of my reading.

    So I am currently on Dan Baum’s Nine Lives, a startling look at New Orleans and its people. I keep forgetting it is non-fiction, and it sends me off on side quests of research when I stumble on some name or snippet of the city I may have encountered when I was recently there. I have also started Alyssa Harad’s Coming to My Senses, but because I raced through Why I No Longer Talk to White People About Race over the weekend, I have a passionate yearning to dive further into something political. I am trying to resist. April 27, 2018 at 11:57am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m very much like you in this respect, because I can never keep to a set reading list. Usually, as I read, I get inspired by that book to search out something new–a new topic or a new book. When a book leads me to a new book, which also leads me to another book, it’s the best. The latest book to do it was Mathias Enard’s Boussole (Compass). April 27, 2018 at 3:21pm Reply

  • Susan: I’m am starting “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.” I am a life-long reader (in my early 60’s now), and my biggest fear as I age is that I will lose cognition and be unable to understand what I read or what is read to me. So, now I read every extra minute just in case. Over the years, I have gotten lost in many genres – my current is fantasy. Thank you, Victoria (and those who post here) for always broadening my horizons. Bois de Jasmin will always be on my reading list. April 27, 2018 at 3:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Susan! A fantasy genre is a great to explore, especially since there is so much choice today.

      I read a few studies that suggest that smelling is an intense work for brain, so I hope that if we all keep smelling consciously and reading, we will be fine. April 27, 2018 at 3:24pm Reply

  • Emilie: Your reading nook under the apricot tree sounds like a perfect place to claim for solitude.

    I think I read for the age old reason that I get to experience by proxy many things I would otherwise never get to in my life (geography and era often being obstacles!) I love my daily life but it is also nice to become lost in other world’s and other lives for a little while. To be a Mongolian horsewomen living a wild life in a yurt or a society lady from a bygone time surrounded by luxury (but probably filled with ennui). Life is short and I know I can’t fit everything into it but reading gives me a little insight into different ways of being.

    My boyfriend and I are currently reading The Hobbit aloud together each night. It’s really fun. I do a particularly good Gollum! April 27, 2018 at 7:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: I enjoyed your story. Yes, I can’t agree more, the fantasy aspect of reading is very important. Books can give us a glimpse into another universe, albeit the one fueled as much by our imagination as by the book itself.

      “Life is short and I know I can’t fit everything into it but reading gives me a little insight into different ways of being.” You put it so well. April 29, 2018 at 3:32am Reply

  • Elena Wood: I always look forward to your posts! I just finished An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones, which was good, and just FINALLY started The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which has been on my shelf for years. He wrote a heartbreaking and beautiful essay for last week’s New Yorker which reminded me what a brilliant and unique voice he has, and I am very much looking forward to diving in over the weekend! I will be adding many to my “to read” list from this thread, as well. And you didn’t ask, but it poured today, and Apres l’Ondee was just perfect. April 27, 2018 at 8:28pm Reply

    • Elena Wood: Oh! The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra is a wonderful collection of short stories. I have been studying the Russian language this year, and this was a wonderful insight into Soviet life. Brilliant. April 27, 2018 at 8:31pm Reply

      • Victoria: Good luck with your language learning! April 29, 2018 at 3:35am Reply

    • Sandra: Is it possible you are my book reading soul sister? We have the same thoughts on books and the New Yorker!? April 28, 2018 at 7:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: I was just reading Junot Diaz’s essay this weekend, and I was thinking of getting the novel.

      Meanwhile, I started The Dancer of Izu by Yasunari Kawabata. April 29, 2018 at 3:34am Reply

  • Amy M.: When we were young teens and most of our friends were out riding fast cars, surfing at the beach, or looking for parties, my best friend and I would walk deep into the woods with the dogs, sit on our favorite log, and read Dickens or Tolkein or C.S. Lewis aloud to one another.

    I’m currently revisiting some of my favorite books, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver being top of the list. The book means so much to me, being a Marylander who has spent much time in Appalachia.

    Your essays are always rich and vibrant, Victoria, thank you. April 28, 2018 at 3:34am Reply

    • Victoria: I like how many of us had such interesting pursuits as children. 🙂

      I’m adding Prodigal Summer to my list! April 29, 2018 at 3:39am Reply

  • Carla: Your own writing is so wonderful I haven’t bothered to read the Ruskin and Proust quotes yet. Reading to inspire, to find one’s own answers. I think reading simply makes me enjoy life more. It brings my own memories and experiences back, novels most of all. If I didn’t read novels I wouldn’t reflect on my life.

    I am actually reading Alyssa Harad’s book for the first time! Basically my experience ten years ago when I discovered perfume and perfume blogs. It’s well done and I love how she describes you and your blog! Before that I set aside »Daphne » by Will Boast before finishing it as it was disappointing. Well really I just skimmed to the end. I thought the title was « Daphne Will Boast » which caught my eye at the library.

    I haven’t really held up my idea of reading books published 100, 200 years ago – 1918, 1818. But I like the idea and I’m sure I will return to it. I wonder what was published in 1919…? April 28, 2018 at 6:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! Please do read the quotes, though (they are only from Proust), because you’ll see that Proust says a very similar thing to what you did. And I can’t agree more with you–and with Proust.

      The only book I can tell you with certainty as being published in 1919 is John Maynard Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace, since I once wrote a research paper about it. I like it very much, and I wouldn’t mind re-reading it. April 29, 2018 at 3:47am Reply

      • Carla: I did read the quotes now and I thank you very much for them! I am so grateful that In became attached to books as a child. When I was little we had only PBS on our TV. When I was nine, the TV broke and was not replaced until I was 14. Thank you, Mom and Dad!
        Sometimes I think I should just buckle down and get rid of our TV. Even now, the early hours of a Sunday, my husband just turned it on for our early-rising two year old. We only watch PBS but still. Also to my chagrin (maybe I exaggerate) my nine year old daughter, while being more of a reader than most, is not a reader like I was, wandering around the house always with nose in book. I’m always tempted to tell her to go read a book but then it becomes a chore. So I try to set the example by reading in front of her and remind myself to have faith that she will discover the pleasure of Reading without my pushing. And indeed she does read a lot before bed and has read many wonderful children’s books, so maybe I set the bar too high.
        I do dream of getting rid of the TV so she, like I, can have childhood memories like Proust’s. Thank you! April 29, 2018 at 7:42am Reply

        • jen: just wait until the battle of ipad/phone vs. book! Or have you found a way to sidestep that? Though I know that there was anxiety about the effects of novels in the early days, similar to the anxiety I now have about digital devices. April 29, 2018 at 10:07am Reply

          • Carla: Hi Jen, well-meaning parents always have a battle to fight, don’t they! I have a plan of approach that takes some discipline for me. Just say no, but no lecturing on the « evils » as this escaltes the battle. And staying off electronics myself at least in front of my daughter. The problem is children and teens don’t have the long view and therefore discipline adults have to use internet and electronics in moderation. It has to be imposed. April 29, 2018 at 10:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Google tells me that Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence was also published in 1919. I’ve read it, and I can’t recommend it enough.

      As for reading based on such parameters, I also wouldn’t be to keep it up. My reading is driven too much by my interests, the constellations of which change constantly. April 29, 2018 at 3:50am Reply

      • Carla: Yes, I think I like to plan ahead my reading just for the pleasure of dropping my plans and snatching a book that catches my fancy. April 29, 2018 at 7:32am Reply

  • Aurora: Wonderful, Victoria, I didn’t know about this Proust’s essay, I recall in La Recherche the narrator’s mother used to skip ‘racy’ passages in George Sand’s novels, leaving him quite confused.

    Currently reading The Last Summer by Elizabeth Bowen, enjoying it, wonderful description of houses and gardens and more seriously of the ‘troubles’ in the Ireland of that time, a very enjoyable way to learn about the history of that time. Also, Alain Duault’s Dans La Peau de Maria Callas a fictive diary of her last days which is making me realize how little I know about opera. April 29, 2018 at 6:12am Reply

    • Victoria: I remember that passage in La Recherche! Made me wonder what were those racy passages. 🙂

      Elizabeth Bowen is on my list. Was it you who recommended Elizabeth Taylor’s books? I’ve read “Angel” and enjoyed it very much. May 4, 2018 at 10:31am Reply

  • Alice: Reading is a pleasure. I’m re-reading the book series “Fortune de France by Robert Merle. I discovered it during my youth and enjoyed it a lot. More than 20 years after the first reading, I remember the name of the caracters and I taste again the beautiful french language. I recommand this book to anyone interested in french language (specialy old words) and history. April 30, 2018 at 3:51am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! It sounds very good. May 4, 2018 at 10:32am Reply

  • Maya: I have been on an Andre Aciman binge lately, interspersed with other authors in between. He is a Proust expert and mentions him in every work I’ve read by him (Out of Egypt, False Papers, and now Enigma Variations). So I find it inevitable that the time has come for Proust. He also mentions the. He also mentioned the movie Becket with O’Toole and Burton and I plan on watching it as well. I find some of my best reading was discovered serendipitously by reading. I was thinking of your writing while reading Aciman’s magnificent essay titled Lavender. It is about scent, memories, longing. Every perfume lover should read it http://www.harvardreview.org/sites/default/files/pdf/Aciman_22.pdf April 30, 2018 at 7:55am Reply

    • marina: Thank you so much for posting this essay! I had never encountered it before, and it’s perfect for any reader of this site.

      You should also watch Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales (which includes Ma Nuit Chez Maude, the film he mentions in that essay) and read Aciman’s novel Eight White Nights. And of course, Call me by Your Name (the film, by the way, is one of the best adaptations of a novel I can think of).

      And of course, Proust! May 1, 2018 at 12:36pm Reply

      • Maya: Thank you so much, Marina! I am off to look for the movie. Last night my husband and I started to watch Becket – which according to Aciman’s book Out of Egypt was the only thing people in Cairo could talk about after it came out. And the movie CMBYN is truly a masterpiece. I feel that just the scene of the father talking to his son at the end of the filmis worth a hundred other good movies. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of the film on YouTube on a daily basis. Thank you again! May 1, 2018 at 1:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! What a gorgeous essay, and you’re right, it’s perfect for all of us. May 4, 2018 at 10:33am Reply

  • karima: Beautiful article, Victoria. You just keep getting better! May 3, 2018 at 7:08am Reply

  • Inma: So inspiring your article and all the comments, as always!

    Somehow I need to keep this sentence with me: “Art is not didactic. It is stimulating. It doesn´t instruct. It inspires”.

    Reading a lot for my work so I tend to keep books aside the rest of the time. Nevertheless, I wanted to read a novel in English – not translated. And I chose Sense and sensibility. Reading slowly although enjoying it so much.

    Thank you! May 4, 2018 at 6:17am Reply

    • Victoria: A great choice! Austen’s novels can be re-read so many times. May 4, 2018 at 10:34am Reply

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