As part of a half-baked New Year’s resolution, I decided to read 5-10 pages of a classic novel every night before bed. The thinking, that drier works whose epic length might once have caused consternation, ultimately resulting in disinclination and lack of completion, could be boiled down to smaller, less intimidating bits.
I viewed the process as a lagniappe in the field of book-reading accomplishment, as though I could complete a behemoth on top of my regular reading list without even noticing (“Has it been 78 months already? That Gravity’s Rainbow just flew by!”).
It began in January, with the granddaddy of them all, Marcel Proust’s, In Search of Lost Time.
A breezy 4215 pages, but who’s counting?
Unfortunately, it’s been a harder than I thought to keep up with this resolution. For starters, Proust’s style – heavy on minutia, light on plot – can be trying.
Sometimes, after a long day, I just can’t do eight pages of Proust waxing poetic about an ephemeral memory of a glimmering doorknob in his childhood bed chamber.
Sometimes, I can’t struggle through yet another endless digression, following young Marcel as he plots to have his mother come in and kiss him good night for a second time. Come on child Proust, get it together. Somebody buy that kid a football.
And, a more general and obvious difficultly I found when attempting and failing at this process before with War and Peace: over a long period of time it can be hard to keep track of everything at play. I’d forgotten about Mr. *****vich, whose last acquaintance I’d met some three months ago at a ballroom in *****berg, with six more *****stov’s and an *****ovna. Remembering becomes a war of attrition and the book always wins.
But overall, it’s been a rewarding gambit. Despite my previous criticisms, I couldn’t have chosen a better book to begin with.
For starters, Proust’s writing is masterful. The pacing, the rhythm. It’s languid and smooth and comforting. It’s literary hot chocolate, made with thick cream, drunk by candle light on a cold winter’s night.
And In Search of Lost Time’s profoundly peaceful nature has a calming effect before bed. Nothing much is happening, but that’s okay, because Proust somehow manages to turn simplicity into profundity. Take his famous Madeleine Passage. For Proust, dipping a madeleine in tea takes on religious significance.
As well it should.
The passage and the general theme of Proust’s writing has made me appreciate the Little Things more. Or at the very least, I’ve become more aware of trying to appreciate them. That mocha on a cold day, those chicken wings and beer. Far too often we gluttonously move from pleasure to pleasure without pausing to reflect on the simple joy found in a singular moment. The law of diminishing returns in a post-scarcity world can make appreciation a difficult endeavor and inflecting Proust is a way of challenging that.
These small moments make up the bulk of our lives, and we miss them because they’re old hat, or as Proust poetically summarized: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but seeing with new eyes.”
It’s rare and wonderful when a book improves your life in some small way, even if it is trying at times and it takes nine years to read.
Nolan Kelly is a library tech student at Langara College.