Book Review: How Proust Can Change Your Life

Book Review: How Proust Can Change Your Life

I love Alain de Botton. I’ve read many of his books, and I’m also a big fan of his Twitter stream, filled with original thoughts. That’s why I couldn’t wait to dive in his literary biography of Marcel Proust. Being familiar with de Botton’s style, I knew the book was aimed at sparking intelligent self-reflection. Oh, and the title helped too.

The book covers Marcel Proust’s personal experiences and many takes on diverse topics of life that we all face daily. Chapters like “How To Take Your Time”, “How To Suffer Successfully” and “How To Open Your Eyes” were among my favorites. Alain does a fantastic job of switching between his own conclusions, Proust’s personal anecdotes, and direct quotes from Proust and people from Proust’s life. He does all this while adding a touch of humor every now and then, as is typical de Botton.

Proust’s wisdom can’t be ignored. Every chapter takes us through a rough series of epiphanies (which we easily connect with our own lives), thanks to his refutal of the most socially accepted beliefs. We feel like shit halfway each chapter, but that’s where the combination of Proust and de Botton is magical. Every chapter ends on a high note, with a moral or lesson, which though unconventional, promises to deliver more substance than the one we held at the beginning. The author does a fantastic job of filtering Proust’s ideas and leaving us with a beautiful new way to live, see, listen, suffer, read and love.

Below are some of my favorite excerpts of How Proust Can Change Your Life…

On life’s purpose:

“If due acknowledgement of our mortality encourages us to reevaluate our priorities, we may well ask what these priorities should be. We might only have been living a half-life before we faced up to the implications of death, but what exactly does a whole life consist of?”

On slowing down:

“Going by slowly may entail greater sympathy. We are being a good deal more sympathetic to the disturbed Mr. van Blarenberghe in writing an extended meditation on his crime than in muttering “crazy” and turning the page.”

On suffering:

“Happiness is good for the body,” Proust tells us, “but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” These griefs put us through a form of mental gymnastics which we would have avoided in happier times.”


“Perhaps the greatest claim one can therefore make for suffering is that it opens up possibilities for intelligent, imaginative inquiry – possibilities that may quite easily be, and most often are, overlooked or refused.”

On knowledge and ignorance:

“A precondition to becoming knowledgeable may be a resignation and accommodation to the extent of one’s ignorance, an accommodation which requires a sense that this ignorance need not be permanent, or indeed need not be taken personally, as a reflection of one’s inherent capacities.”

On clichés:

“The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or a moon, we will end up believing that this is the last rather than the first word to be said on the subject. Clichés are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”

On friendship:

“I do my intellectual work within myself, and once with other people it’s more or less irrelevant to me that they’re intelligent, as long as they’re kind, sincere, etc.”


“There seems a gap between what others need to hear from us in order to trust that we like them, and the extent of the negative thoughts we know we can feel toward them and still like them.”

On art:

“We might caricature the history of art as a succession of geniuses engaged in pointing out different elements worthy of our attention, a succession of painters using their immense technical mastery to say what amounts to “Aren’t those back streets in Delft pretty?” or “Isn’t the Seine nice outside Paris?””

On appreciation:

“The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.”

On voluntary memory:

“Voluntary memory, the memory of the intellect and the eyes, [gives] us only imprecise facsimiles of the past which no more resemble it than pictures by bad painters resemble the spring… So we don’t believe that life is beautiful because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across and old glove we burst into tears.”

On being bored with one’s lover:

“If long acquaintance with a lover so often breeds boredom, breeds a sense of knowing a person too well, the problem may ironically be that we do not know him or her well enough. Whereas the initial novelty of the relationship could leave us in no doubt as to our ignorance, the subsequent reliable physical presence of the lover and the routines of communal life can delude us into thinking that we have achieved genuine, and dull, familiarity; whereas it may be no more than a fake sense of familiarity that physical presence fosters.”

On long-lasting relationships and jealousy:

“When you come to live with a woman, you will soon cease to see anything of what made you love her; though it is true that the two sundered elements can be reunited by jealousy.”

On reading books:

“It is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books (which allows us to see the role at once essential yet limited that reading may play in our spiritual lives) that for the author they may be called “Conclusions” but for the reader “Incitements.” We feel very strongly that our own wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off, and we would like him to provide us with answers when all he is able to do is provide us with desires… That is the value of reading and also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.”

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