How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton: Summary & Notes

Front cover of 'How Proust Can Change Your Life' by Alain de Botton.

In short

If you’ve ever heard of Marcel Proust it’s probably because of the massive seven volume novel In Search of Lost Time – which, for the record, spans more than 4,000+ pages. Not the easiest novel to read by any means, but still it’s a book that’s on the ‘one day’ reading list for many people.

For those that don’t have time How Proust Can Change Your Life might be a good alternative. In it, Alain de Botton digests Proust’s novel, and his life, into several chapters with topics such as ‘How to suffer successfully’, ‘How to be a good friend’, and ‘How to open your eyes’. He writes in a short and witty style and even if you don’t plan on reading Proust one day, you will find usable insight in this book.

How Proust Can Change Your Life provides advice on how to live, and how not to live, taking different lessons and anecdotes from Proust’s novel and life.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.

How to Read For Yourself

“In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.

  • What are the benefits of this?
    • 1) We feel at home everywhere. No matter how long ago, or how different the world from us, if we look at a painting, or read a classic work, we recognize a universal human nature.
    • 2) A cure for loneliness. What we feel we might not be able to share with others or it might be an aberration in our own time. But through fictional characters we see a wider scope of human nature, which can confirm our own feelings (or at least make us feel less lonely or strange).
    • 3) The finger placing ability. Novels can also help us to identify emotions that we know are our own, but that we did not formulate ourselves.

How to Suffer Successfully

  • Proust was no stranger to suffering. De Botton list a huge number of ailments (always cold, sensitive skin, sensitivity to altitude, bad digestion, …) or annoyances (mice, noise from neighbors, …) that bothered Proust – self-inflicted or not.
  • According to Proust’s view we don’t really learn anything until it’s a problem, or until we suffer. As Proust writes: “We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.”
  • “Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” – Marcel Proust
  • To a Proustian, pain is the starting point from which we can better understand our lives. Pain is surprising, it can stir us to find reasons for it, and while it does not lessen our suffering we do get a better understanding.

How to Express Your Emotions

  • How do we properly express experiences and emotions? Usually the words and sentences we use to describe something do not do justice to things we felt or lived through.
  • This is why we often go for stock phrases and clichés, or we try to sound like other people. De Botton writes: “The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones.”
  • Works of art can help us to appreciate and highlight a missing aspect of reality. Proust writes: “Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us.”

How to Be Happy in Love

  • “Deprivation quickly drives us into a process of appreciation, which is not to say that we have to be deprived in order to appreciate things, but rather that we should learn a lesson from what we naturally do when we lack something, and apply it to conditions where we don’t.”
  • The secret to long-lasting relationships – according to Proust – is the threat of infidelity. This can make a person realize that they have not properly appreciated their partner. As Proust writes:
  • “Afraid of losing her, we forget all the others. Sure of keeping her, we compare her with those others whom at once we prefer to her.”

How to Put Books Down

  • De Botton writes of Proust’s philosophy of books: “We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel, it is our own thoughts we should be developing even if it is another writer’s thoughts which help us do so.”
  • Proust himself said that: “To make [reading] 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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