“On Reading” by Marcel Proust: The Power of Books (Preface to John Ruskin’s “Sesame and Lilies”)


Proust_On_Reading  The taste for books seems to grow as intelligence grows. Marcel Proust

 Books are not only powerful instruments to disseminate knowledge, but also agents of change. They are sources for joy and personal development as well as inspiration for freedom and democracy, to the extend that they even drive dictators to ban or destroy them. In order to understand better what reading books implies in Marcel Proust’s preface to John Ruskin’s “Sesame and Lilies, I would like to offer first, as a context, some examples of books in the history of libraries and publishing.

 The library has been a popular topic in numerous fiction books. For example, in The Library of Babel (La biblioteca de Babel), the famous short story by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, there exists a geometrical space or labyrinth with walls filled with books, including one with a magic and cabalistic content. On the other hand, in Auto da Fé, the novel written by Elias Canetti, a Literature Nobel Prize laureate, the main character has an obsessive and eventually tragic relationship with his enormous library. Among the non-fiction books dealing with the same motif, The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, a renowned historian on books and reading, contains a serious study of famous libraries, from the biblical Babel and Alexandria to modern days, exploring the histories and anecdotes of book collections as well as their collectors, including a detailed description of his own library in France.

There are also many novels whose plots are based on either real or imaginary books. The famous novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco begins with the following sentence: “On August 16, 1968, I was handed a book written by a certain Abbé Vallet, Le Manuscrit de Dom Adson de Melk, traduit en français d’après l’édition de Dom J. Mabillon (Aux Presses de l’Abbaye de la Source, Paris, 1842).” Here we have a complete reference of a specific book, including the date of publication. The story continues to tell the quest of “Le Manuscrit” while disclosing its secret content.

In this genre we can include publications with lists of favorite books by various authors and their recommendations. Over a hundred years ago a Russian publisher asked two thousand scholars, artists, and men of letters to name the books which were important to them. Tolstoy responded with a list with even the remarks of degrees of influence by ranking each title as: “enormous,” “very great,” or merely “great” (check below the link with the list of Tolstoy). There are also books dealing with the history of the most famous publishing houses like The House of MacMillan by British author Charles Morgan or At Random by Bennett Cerf, a writer and editor closely linked with Random House. These days some want to portray publishers as “villains”, whereas these kind of books can help us to understand how the industry works and the important role it plays in promoting a culture.

However, the style of “On Reading” by Proust is so great and original, totally different from any   conventions mentioned above, that I think it can be considered a “chef-d’œuvre”. Proust used it as a preface to his own French translation of the English art critic John Ruskin’s talk “Sesame and Lilies published in the same book with five other of Ruskin’s lectures that Proust also translated and annotated, i.e. Sesames of King’s Treasures, Makeshift Memory, Ruskin in Venice, Servitude and Freedom and Resurrection.

Ruskin’s presentation “Sesame and Lilies was delivered in Rusholme Town Hall, Manchester, in December 1864. There, he told the audience: “..reading is precisely a conversation with men much wiser and more interesting than those we can know in person…reading, unlike conversation, consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought while remaining alone,..”. It was published in 1865 and attracted wide attention at the time. It was considered a classic nineteenth-century controversial statement on the roles of men and women, but the main focus of the talk actually lies in the importance of books and the rewards of reading.

Proust never met Ruskin but Ruskin’s works inspired Proust to write. Proust was also motivated to admire art, including a visit to Venice following the critic’s steps. Proust took the task of making Ruskin’s lectures available in French so seriously that he devoted eight years of apprenticeship to master English and eventually translate Ruskin’s talks into French with his notes as well as an introduction to the lecture “Sesame and Lilies. This translation in its entirety had been out of print since the early twentieth century until very recently.

Proust’s Preface uses the same introspective style as that of his monumental work A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or Things Remembered from the Past). In On Writing Proust describes with great detail his experience as a young man on holidays in the countryside with his aunt and uncle, probably in Illiers-Combray. It is full of vivid illustrations of the mind such as the objects in his bedroom “these.. filled the room with a silent and multifarious life, with a mystery in which my own personality found itself at once lost and enchanted”. He recalls the sounds of the conversations with the cook and other daily events of little importance such as his uncle brewing coffee or his aunt commenting on food, music or manners. I am especially impressed by the way in which he describes his irresistible urge to finish dinner or end outdoor games that he “was forced to playas he could not wait to go back to his room to continue reading.

 Proust also talks about the sadness that he feels when a book is finished, giving details of his desire to continue reading: he, like other passionate readers, “.. wanted the book to keep going, and, if that were not possible, wanted more information about all of its characters, wanted to learn something further about their lives,..”. In another description of his feeling after reaching the end of a book, Proust notes “..when the last page had been read, the book was finished. With a deep sigh I had to halt the frantic racing of my eyes and of my voices, which had followed after my eyes without making a sound, stopping only to catch its breath.

Proust also dedicates some space to talk about the relationship between authors and their books, describing how “…the greatest writers, in the hours when they are not in direct communication with their thoughts, enjoy the company of books.then even adding “thinkers have a much greater capacity for productive reading (if one may put it this way) than creative writers”. Another thing that Proust and Ruskin both strongly suggest is that reading should be an intimate activity practiced in solitude.

Proust reveals his philosophical wisdom distinguishing what historians and scholars seek by consulting books from what a regular reader expects. The former are looking for references to prove a theory or a superficial fact that they consider to be “a truth”, in his own words: “…this truth that they seek at a distance, in a book, is properly speaking less the truth itself than a sign or a proof, something that therefore makes way for another truth that it suggests or verifies and this latter truth at least is an individual creation of his spirit.The latter, especially what Proust considers the “literary man” reads for the sake of reading, to store up what he has read.

Proust here also shows his perception of issues related to psychological health as he writes about the healing quality that reading offers particularly to ease depression: “There are … pathological circumstances one might say, of spiritual depression, in which reading can become a sort of curative discipline…” then, becoming more explicit, he adds, “Books then play for the person in these circumstances a role analogous to that played by psychotherapists”.

In “On Reading Proust lists names of many authors like Tacitus, Horace, Plato, Euripides, Ovid, Dante, Pascal, Montaigne, Diderot, Hugo, Molière, Descartes, Shakespeare and many more. But the only work that he describes with some details is Captain Fracasse by Théophile Gautier that he used to read in childhood, which shows the influence the book has on Proust.

 We certainly live in a time very different from the early 20th Century when Proust translated Ruskin’s dissertations and wrote the brilliant preface that we have just reviewed. Reading today can be conducted other than through books printed on paper. Technology allows us to bring our entire electronic library in a small device like an iPhone or iPad wherever we go. The supply of books has also become almost unlimited with the advent of “self publishing” which facilitates the publishing of one’s writings. However, the challenge for us today might be how to dedicate time to reading and to getting quality reading material. It is very common today to find some people spend considerable time on emails and all forms of social media which many use obsessively. For those, we imagine, very little time could be left for real book reading.

In spite of the criticism and challenges that publishing houses face today, generally speaking, they are still the main source of quality books, with their professional text editing, type-setting and cover designs. Moreover, for centuries, some conscientious publishers have produced lots of “beautiful books”, therefore, in Proust’s expression, nourishing and promoting the most outstanding authors, including all the Literature Nobel Prize laureates among others. As Proust brilliantly describes one of his experiences finishing reading a book is like ending an intimate conversation with its author and its main characters: “… 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. We can feel that our wisdom begins where the author’s ends


Excerpts From: Proust, Marcel. “On Reading. Published by Hesperus Press Limited, 2011. Available in iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/on-reading/id482141696?mt=11

 Excerpt From: Umberto Eco. “The Name of the Rose.iBooks. https://itun.es/us/IpbFz. Originally published Published by Harcourt, 1984

Jorge Luis Borges. The Library of Babel. In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, Published by Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom, 2000

 Elias Canetti. Auto Da Fe, Published by Pan Books Ltd, 1978

 Alberto Manguel. The Library at Night, Published by Yale University Press, 2008

 Charles Morgan. The House of Macmillan (1843-1943), Published by Macmillan & Co. London, 1943

 Bennett Cerf. At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf, Published by Random House, 1977

Leo Tolstoy. List of the 50+ Books That Influenced Him Most (1891).


Walker Percy’s “Lancelot”: a Philosophical Novel

Screenshot 2014-07-04 11.01.59Lancelot is probably the most controversial of the six novels written by Walker Percy, who is considered one of the greatest provocative “existentialist” voices in American literature. His first novel The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award.

 Percy followed the philosophical path of Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and other relevant writers and philosophers. He was born in Alabama in 1916 and belongs to the extraordinary group of American Southern writers which includes William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, William Styron, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Tom Wolf, etc. Most of their works are marked by the “Southern Culture” which, for historical reasons, is different from the North and the West. New Orleans is one of the favorite places where some of the novels take place, as it is a multilingual city located in Louisiana, a State with a distinct culture breeding from a diverse ethnic population influenced by its background as a former French colony sold by Napoleon to the United States in 1812.

 Walker Percy’s life was full of tragedies. When Percy was 13 years old, his father committed suicide. Three years later, his mother was killed driving her car, which plunged into a river – many think it was intentional. He and his two brothers were then adopted by their uncle, a wealthy owner of a large plantation, a poet and a writer who was a friend of many important Southern writers including William Faulkner. His uncle, a lawyer graduated from Harvard, offered great help to the local poor and black people to get mortgage loans, which is noted by Peter Augustine Lawler in his anthology book titled A Political Companion to Walker Percy, the Percy family “..were vigorous opponents of bigotry and narrow-mindedness, especially when it was directed against Catholics, Jews, and Negroes”. His uncle was also openly against the Ku Klux Klan, which was at that time very powerful in the South.

With the support of his uncle, young Percy attended the most prestigious schools. After graduating from Columbia Medical School, he worked as an intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York, where he contracted a rare kind of tuberculosis. He was then forced to be in isolation for three years at the Trudeau Sanatorium near Saranac Lake in up-state New York. Under the influence of his uncle’s literary background, during this timePercy became a voracious reader of St. Thomas, St. Agustin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus and, for obvious reasons, Thomas Mann, whose Magic Mountain portrays people in a secluded situation similar to his. Due to this unexpected experience, Percy decided to abandon medicine and dedicated his life to writing, thus turning into a “confessed philosophical novelist preoccupied with the nature of the world and man’s purpose..”, according to Susan Lardner (Miscreants, The New Yorker, 02 May ,1997)

 Percy’s novels take place in New Orleans, where he lived most of his life, His main characters, like himself, are highly individualistic with a solitary nature and are inclined to explore their own existences, covering subjects such as social background, idiosyncratic traditions and religion, mainly Catholicism as Percy became a Roman Catholic since marrying his wife.

 Taking into account the number of suicides in Percy’s family, the issue of “suicide” cannot but be present, implicitly or explicitly, in some of his novels. For example, in The Moviegoer one of the characters contemplates suicide and in The Last Gentleman a suicide actually takes place.

 Percy’s experiences with the recurring hurricanes in New Orleans, some with deadly effects, also become a motif of his novels. Furthermore, Percy tends to include the notion of “accident” or “incident” that dramatically changes the lives of the main characters in his stories and therefore brings them into such a depressed state that they blame the situation on what they view as the corrupted “Zeitgeist” i.e. the spirit of their time.

Percy incorporates all these elements as the key parts in the plot of his fourth novel Lancelot, published in 1977. The protagonist Lancelot seems to be locked somewhere like a jail or a mental hospital. The novel is basically an elaborate and complex monologue that Lancelot has with Percival, who can be a friend, a psychotherapist or a priest that visits him and listens to his story and troubled past. “…whether prison or not, is not a bad place to spend a year he tells his attentive listener. By using the names of two of the most famous Knights of the Round Table involved in the quest for the Holy Grail, Percy seems to have drawn some parallels between the two stories. Lancelot, like the Knight, is associated with tragedy and adultery, ending up disillusioned in solitary confinement, seeking redemption after a series of calamities, whereas Percival is the Knight that represents the values of Christianity. Another relevant reference is that in the novel Percy briefly mentions Queen Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife who commits adultery with Lancelot.

 In the beginning of the novel Lancelot tells Percival that he decided to kill his wife after he “discovered purely by chance that my wife had been, and probably was still, unfaithful to me”. The “accidental revelationconveys profound outrage and disappointment with life, a feeling that makes it impossible for him to have any form of trust in others, including romantic relationships. He blames the prevailing decadent culture of his time, sermonizing like a madman, “I can’t tolerate this age.. Make love not war? I’ll take war rather than what this age calls love. Which is a better world, this cocksucking cuntlapping assholelicking fornicating Happyland USA.Lancelot also associates his anger and resentment with religion when he says “God’s secret design for man is that man’s happiness lies for men in men practicing violence upon women and that woman’s happiness lies in submitting to it.

 In addition to the moral and religious remarks to justify the brutal act of killing his wife, Lancelot also mentions the political context of his indignation, telling Percival that his country “is down the drain. Everyone knows it. The people have lost it to the politicians, bureaucrats, drunk Congressmen, lying Presidents, White House preachers, C.I.A., F.B.I., Mafia, Pentagon, pornographers, muggers, buggers, bribers, bribe takers, rich crooked cowboys, sclerotic Southerners, rich crooked Yankees, dirty books, dirty movies, dirty plays, dirty talk shows, dirty soap operas, fags, lesbians, abortionists, Jesus shouters, anti-Jesus shouters, dying cities, dying schools, courses in how to fuck for schoolchildren.Clearly Percy does not share Lancelot’s extreme opinions which, however, some people do embrace in the US till today.

Although Percy portraits Lancelot as a sophisticated thinker at times, in the end he looks like a deranged man so full of contradictions that he murders his wife without remorse. To make his character more complex, Percy adds the notion of “redemption” like the Knight of the Round Table. Lancelot tells Percival that once he is released from jail or the madhouse, he wants to marry the woman from the next door cell, who was gangraped and is recovering from the traumatic experience. Women must be saved from the whoredom they’ve chosen.”, he explains.Lancelot wants to lead a revolution with his future wife to save the world from decadence, “we had both suffered the worst that could happen to us and come through, not merely survived but prevailed…we were qualified as the new Adam and Eve of the new world. If we couldn’t invent a new world and a new dignity between man and woman, surely nobody could.he adds.

 When the novel was released, it received some negative reviews, especially one from Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a novelist, political activist and editor of The New York Times Book Review. With the title “Camelot Lost”, the reviewer considers that Lancelot’s ideas are “downright upsetting. His treatment of an educated Negro as his family slave, his ridicule of the pretensions of modern art, his snobbery toward the socially inferior longing for acceptance and, most of all, his abhorrence of the liberated woman and his insistence that after his revolution “the New Woman will have perfect freedom. She will be free to be a lady or a whore”, ideasthat Walker Percy clearly didn’t share. It seems that Mr. Lehmann-Haupt treats the book as a non-fiction, forgetting that the characters are fictional and also deranged. As a Southerner, Lancelot experiences with race might be different from a Northern liberal, but he is definitely not a racist as Mr. Lehmann-Haupt seems to have implied. The reviewer takes out the context of Lancelot’s rants about blacks and women, showing bad faith by failing to mention that Percy was a socially concerned person and publicly criticizes any form of bigotry.

Written as a monologue in the “first person” p.o.v. enriched withphilosophical content, Lancelot is probably Percy’s most difficult book to read. The main character and the only voice in the novel seems to be mentally ill. At times itinconsistently recounts the storyof his life in the context of a well-cultivated man who frequently quotes movies, classic existentialist writers and philosophers whomWalker Percy knew so well after years of studying their works. Percy is not only highly recognized as an extraordinary fiction writer but also asan existentialist philosopher who wrote several essays on Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel etc. Just a few months before Lancelot was released, Percy published “The Man on the Train” —- an essay in which he explores some of the issues that Lancelot faces, particularly “alienation”, a lonely existence lost in the crowd and psychological isolation in modern life, which he calls “everydayness”. Lancelot deals with all these existentialist concepts; therefore,it can also be treated as a philosophical fiction.


= Excerpts From: Walker Percy, Lancelot, iBooks.

https://itun.es/us/u3SHz.l  Originally published by Farrar, Straus, 1977.

= Patrick H. Samway, Walker Percy: A Life, University Press of Kentucky 410.

 = Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Camelot Lost, Books of the Times,The New York Times, February 17, 1977

 = Walker Percy. “The Man on the Train: Three Existential Modes.” Partisan Review, no. 23 (Fall 1956). Hobson, p. 64. Later published in 1975 with other essays in Walker Percy “The Message in a Bottle” ,New York, Picador, 19