Confession: I have never read Proust. Not one word, let alone the 4,300 pages of them in the English translation of his seven-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past).
On the occasion of the French author’s 145th birthday, LitHub invited six authors to sing his praises, and explain why his work remains essential reading. Siri Hustvedt, Edmund White, André Aciman, Francine Prose, Aleksandar Hemon, and Daniel Mendelsohn all weighed in. Mendelsohn had a particularly modern take on the value of reading Proust’s densely written, heavily detailed, slowly unfolding opus:
Recently I was traveling on a train next to a young man—a recent college graduate, I guessed—who was reading a hugely fat Victorian novel. Since I teach literature, this made me happy. But as I watched him I noticed that roughly every 90 seconds he’d fish out his iPhone to check his text messages. After a while this reflexive tic made me so nervous that I moved to another seat. As a writer as well as a teacher, I found it nerve-wracking to think that this is how some people are reading novels these days—which is to say, not really reading them, because you can’t read anything serious in two-minute spurts, or with your mind half on something else, like the messages you may be getting. Multitasking is the great myth of the present era: you cannot, in fact, do two things at the same time.
Especially if one of them requires considerable resources of attentiveness and intellectual commitment. To my mind, a very important reason to have a go at Proust right now—which is to say, to read him with a mind as receptive as his was large—is to exercise one’s powers of commitment.