It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these diaries. I have to be honest: I don’t think it’s ever been more difficult for me to find time to read. It’s strange, because I’m reading more than I have in years, and yet I struggle for those hours of solitude. I schedule them, I turn on Freedom, I turn off my phone, I go to bars alone, I give up on critically acclaimed TV shows, I unsubscribe from podcasts, and every afternoon I sit my son down in front of Octonauts so that I can sneak into his room and read novels and magazines. I like to read in my son’s room because he has a single bed like the one I had in college, and it is covered by a quilt that my mother made for me. Sitting on that little bed, surrounded by toys, I feel as if I have permission to read solely for the fun of it — not because I need to, for an assignment, or because it will be beneficial, in some indirect way, for my writing.
When I started reading In Search of Lost Time at the beginning of the year, I planned to read 10 to 20 pages a day, which I thought would be a reasonable and attainable goal. At least one commenter recommended that I throw page numbers out the window, because Marcel Proust’s prose style does not really bend itself to “reasonable.” Those commenters were absolutely right. Counting pages was frustrating; as soon as I found myself sinking into the book, I would reach the end of my daily allotment. It seemed foolish to limit myself just to make the book easier to digest — or, more likely, because I felt guilty cutting into my “work time” for more than 20 minutes. Likewise, if I really only had 20 minutes for reading on a particular day, there was no point in reading Proust. Better to wait until I could block off at least 45 minutes. For a couple of months this summer, when my son was at day camp, I went to a coffee shop after drop-off and read there for an hour or so. It was a wonderful way to start the day, and I liked it so much that I can’t figure out why I don’t make a point of doing it every day. Then again, why don’t I do 10 minutes of yoga every morning or drink two glasses of water with lemon, upon rising? Those things make me feel great, too, and like reading, they are cheap and accessible. The only thing that stops me is my indolence.
There is no one like Proust to force you to examine your habits, and lately I’ve been thinking about how and why I find time to read books — and not only Proust. I actually feel like I’ve got a handle on In Search. I am now about halfway through Sodom and Gomorrah, which means I’ve crossed the border of my previous attempts. I don’t feel any desire to quit, which is not to say that there haven’t been boring parts. There have. But I’ve discovered that I really like having a long-term reading project. It brings a continuity and effort to my reading life that I was missing.
Before this Proust project, my reading was disciplined mainly by my book group’s selections, which I generally read at the last minute, a few days before the group meeting — so it’s fresh in my mind, I tell myself. Really, I’ve fallen into a binge reading habit, in general. Because it is so hard to find time to read, and because we live in an age when reading time must be planned, I gravitate toward books that force me to read them, making me forget my to-do list. Books like volumes one and two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I read those when my son was two and I remember tipping over the recycling bin and letting him play with the forbidden plastic and glass bottles so that I could eke out 20 more minutes of reading time. But I lost interest halfway through book three, and have left the series alone for the time being. A similar thing happened with the first two Elena Ferrante novels. I lost interest after book three — only to be taken by storm, a few months ago, when the fourth book suddenly seemed to take on a special glow on my bookshelf, and I just had to finish the series.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with abandoning a book or taking a break from a series, but reading Proust all year has reminded me of the particular pleasure of focusing on one author for an extended period of time. I used to do this a lot, when I was a teenager, in part because I didn’t know what to read, so when I found an author I liked, I read everything I could find. But I also did it out of a desire to be close to the writer, to notice obsessions and preoccupations, favored words and phrases, repeated motifs and situations, and of course, to observe the way his or her storytelling changed over the years. For a writer, it’s slightly embarrassing the way a reader can track your development (as both a writer and a human being), but for a reader, it’s intoxicating, and reading In Search of Lost Time has reminded me of that feeling. It’s probably too early to start thinking about what I’m going to read when I’m finished with In Search of…, but I think I’d like to choose an author and read all of his or her works in a systematic way — and then maybe keep doing that, until I’ve exhausted my favorites. For the first time, I see the appeal of being a completist.
Sometimes I think that In Search of… is about reading, more than anything else: reading people, reading art, reading memory. Reading people, especially. The most incredible thing about Proust’s novel is his characterization, which I appreciate even more in this reading, now that I am a little older, and have seen the way people change (or don’t change) over time. It is almost magical, the way you get to know Marcel’s friends and witness their transformation over the years. At least some of this involvement has to do with the book’s length. You’re spending a lot of time with these people. There have been some dull passages, usually party scenes in high society, where I’ve wondered what on earth Proust is up to (and sometimes, he will interrupt a passage to assure the reader that this will all be relevant, later) and then 100 pages later, a character from the party will reappear, someone I hadn’t even realized I’d gotten attached to, and I will feel like I’m seeing an old friend. And as Marcel reports on their lives, and the changes in their behaviors and appearances, I will feel as if I am noticing these changes, because I’ve become so steeped in Marcel’s (and, by extension, Proust’s) sensibility.
To be steeped in sensibility. For me, this is the pleasure of reading. In real life, it would be hazardous to take on another person’s point of view so completely, but in reading, you can be reckless — and this is what I’ve been reminding myself, lately, when I feel I have no time to read. Am I really going to fill up my days with productive activities? Or am I going to leave some space for recklessness?