Becoming the Living Poet

Reasons to Read

Posted on: July 21, 2009

In the last month I stumbled upon two books that most writers would probably get a lot out of: Writing A Woman’s Life by Carolyn Heilbrun and How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Bottom.

Writing A Woman’s Life is a brief (a little over a hundred pages) history of how women authors have been depicted in biographies. More specifically, it asserts that a lot of patriarchal assumptions have crept into how female writer’s lives have been depicted by biographers. Marrying or failing to marry has been over-emphasized and the quest for literary greatness or artistic self-actualization has been minimized in a way that has not been seen in biographies written about male writers.

How Proust Can Change Your Life is a combination literary criticism and self help book. I haven’t come across a book as eruditely hilarious since reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Guide To Punctuation by Lynne Truss. Marcel Proust is the author of In Search of Lost Time, a seven part novel which is for France, as far as I can tell, what War and Peace is for Russia. I’ve never read Proust myself (I might after reading him summarized), but previous knowledge of Proust is definitely not a prerequisite to enjoying this book.

One theme running through both books is how reading effects people and why books are important.

On this topic Helibrun tells us:

What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.

The above Heilbrun quote really inspired me so I did a bit of free writing about it. Here is what I wrote:

The parameters within which you define what is and what is not possible to do, or be, or see in your lifetime are not neutral or impersonal. How one defines one’s own limitations has a lot to do with one’s environment and the influences one has been exposed to. This is why reading is so dangerous, not because we become what we read, but because we can choose to become anything we can imagine and reading expands that threshold. Reading changes us because it delivers a silent invitation for personal transformation. It reminds us of the possibility of new beginnings and alternate endings.

Alain de Bottom provides the following Proust quotation (presumably translated by himself) on the value of books:

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 the 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.

He also quotes Proust on the topic of the limitations of reading:

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.

Proust’s first quote seems to be saying the opposite of what Heilbrun’s is saying. While Heilbrun asserts that stories have formed us, Proust tells us that stories are but a tool by which we see ourselves more clearly.

Is it possible that when a book triggers a deeper level of introspection that in turn paves the way for the formation of a new model of living?

The unique way a novel draws you into the mind of a character, allowing you to experience their thoughts viscerally as if they were your own, can open you up to insights you simply wouldn’t get to in your daily life. At the same time those insights tend not to leave a lasting impression unless they are in some way extensions of thoughts that have already occurred to you, but never so eloquently or so wittily or in such an extreme fashion.

So books can expand the depth and breadth of a person’s thinking, but only if they start from a place that feels familiar and take us somewhere new from there.

So perhaps we care about characters in books because we recognize them as ourselves in the Proustian sense, but the process doesn’t stop there. We are then driven to create new fictions, new narratives in our own lives because the book allows us to meet a version of ourselves we’ve never met before and would like to carry with us after we leave the book on the shelf.

I think Proust’s description of a book as an ‘Incitement’ is dead on. The words written in our favorite books drive us towards new words and new thoughts.

I think Heilbrun is correct that we live our lives through texts, but it is not the texts of a single influential book or even an entire canon. The texts in which we live are the texts that play through our minds on a daily basis, the internal words we choose to narrate our actions that steer our lives in this direction or that.

Even if some of us never commit our stories to paper, we are, each of us, moment to moment writers of our own lives, choosing our dialogue according to the motivations we believe most realistically portray the character we have chosen to become.

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1 Response to "Reasons to Read"

i absolutely love your last paragraph most of all of this piece! 🙂 what a great disucssion.

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