On reading Marcel Proust: Part 1


Why you should read ‘In Search of Lost Time’ and stop using Facebook
Yes, I actually own two sets of ‘In Search of Lost Time’

1072 words · 6 min read

The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.

One of the writers who influences me a great deal is Marcel Proust. His never-ending In Search of Lost Time is such a monstrosity that there are places when even a great admirer like myself would wonder why did you write this? and doubt the possibility of ever finishing the whole series (I am about three books into it). The novel may seem boring at times, as the narrator indulges himself in his own inner world in a way that makes you wonder if his mind is sound; it deals with snobbery and racism that’s quite inappropriate for our time (pages upon pages are spent discussing the Dreyfus Affair and how the French society fractured between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards); it also deals with who’s sleeping with whom; but at the same time, it was also truthful, in a way that when you are loathing one of the characters’ behaviour at a soirée at a certain duchess’s house, you wonder if you have just met someone who has done the exact behaviour at another occasion, or if you yourself have committed that very crime of behaving like an arsehole.

The quote at the top of the page is from the first volume of In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way. I can hardly remember the exact context in which Charles Swann spoke this line, but the line alone stuck to my head. Surely, there are great journalists producing excellent investigations into matter that should concern us, and there are more than just three or four books that “give us anything that is of real importance” (even In Search of Lost Time has six volumes, or seven, depending on the edition you have), but the meaning behind that line, when I look at the world surrounding us, is not that far from the truth.

Human minds crave stimulation: we may be complaining about being overloaded with information, we are seeking stimulation all the time, often much to our regret in the end, for we can no longer stay focus on a task for any extended period of time. News articles are getting shorter and shorter, because we don’t want to read anything on a computer screen which requires more than two mouse-wheel scrolls. Meanwhile, activities that require extended concentration and effortful mental activities become boring. In some way, it makes sense: modern life is stressful and exhausting, so we don’t want to engage in deep mental activities, and when we do seek out information, we want to read as little words as possible to know as many things as possible. Most news organisations are private, profit-maximising organisations, so media organisations create content to suit our tastes: if readers want more pictures, more pictures they have; if readers want stories shorter than two mouse-wheel scrolls, stories get shorter and shorter; if clickbait-y headlines drive traffic, write clickbait-y headline to a story that does not even have anything to do with the headline itself. The problem is, of course, that the world is complicated, and there are not many things that can be adequately explained by a less-than-two-scroll online article; sometimes, you need twenty scrolls or more; sometimes, you need a book, or two books, or even more.

I have to confess that, from time to time, I have been guilty in distraction-seeking behaviour and not wanting to read anything substantial. But the more I become conscious of the value of the latest news and gossips and shit I come across on a daily basis, the more it becomes clear that:

  1. Most, if not all, of the news you read on any given day will become irrelevant within a week; and
  2. Most, if not all, of the news you read on any given day will be forgotten by your brain within two weeks.

With that in mind, one has to wonder the value of taking “an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day.” If something could become irrelevant and be forgotten that quickly, it is probably not quite valuable in the first place, which begs the question: why do humans complain about being overloaded with information while at the same time seeking out junky information and taking pleasure from it? I will leave that question for another day, because the self-destructive behaviour of stimulation-seeking does not end there.

Apparently, when Facebook broke the Facebook app to see how long their users would stop trying, they found out that their users (or used) will never stop coming back; in other words, humans want to engage in a self-destructive behaviour so much that they will not stop trying even when there is a insurmountable obstacle. In one way, I can understand the pull of Facebook, as there used to be days when I checked the Facebook app rather regularly; in another way, however, I cannot understand the pull of Facebook, because “Facebook is good for you” is a belief believed by almost no one. Other than using Facebook to stalk your friends and make yourself miserable, many people now rely on Facebook, through what their friends are sharing, to get news and information they think are worthy but are not. Humans waste time on Facebook so that they can check out what their friends are up to and to get links to stories that do not matter, in the process of which wasting more time. Why?

While closing my Facebook account (not just disabling it) has been one of the best decisions ever, I don’t think I’ve convinced many to follow suit. I wish more people would close their Facebook account, whereby saving half an hour a day, and re-allocate that half an hour to read a few pages of In Search of Lost Time. It would probably take years to finish all six volumes at that rate (you will be very slow in the beginning before you get used to Proustian long sentences), but if more people are willing to give up taking “an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day” and read that six books that “give us anything that is of real importance,” I have high hope that the world will become a better place.

But that’s just a dream.

 Essays    22 Apr, 2016
 Marcel Proust    Fiction    Social Media    Journalism  
Copyright © Peter Y. Chuang 2018

Peter Y. Chuang is a Hong Kong-born novelist and short story writer who’s lived in London and calls Berlin his spiritual home. He has completed the manuscript of a literary science fiction novel, Twenty Forty-Seven,” and is currently re-writing another literary novel, Only You Know What It Means.”