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What Keeps Me Calm: Reading Alain de Botton

In 'How Proust Can Change Your Life,' author Alain de Botton wrestles with Proust’s philosophy and his own witty account of life.

Welcome to What Keeps Me Calm, a series of movies, television shows, albums, books, and other works of media that are comforting us during these incredibly stressful times. On particularly sad and disheartening days, there’s nothing better and more consoling than to turn to our favorite things to read, watch, and listen, as these offer a respite from the hardships we face collectively and individually.

At the first few turns of the book, de Botton writes, “What does a whole life consist of?”

As a person who has gotten used to living her life in a next-next-next rhythm, I’ve slowly begun to find the simple act of taking a step back quite difficult. In my moments filled with stress and anxiety, I quickly turn to the comfort that a book unselfishly offers. 

In de Botton’s attempt to recount Marcel Proust’s philosophy, he puts forward a witty narrative resembling a self-help book. At its very core, How Proust Can Change Your Life sheds light on the most practical ways on how to best live life. The author splits the book into named sections that tightly encapsulates the lessons he hopes to share—How to Read for Yourself, How to Take Your Time, How to Suffer Successfully, How to Express Your Emotions, to name a few.

Cover of 'How Proust Can Change Your Life' and excerpts from the book | Penguin Random House

As each chapter carves out a detailed sketch of how these lessons come into play of living a fuller life, I’ve taken down some of the points that has enlightened me to appreciate my life more widely:

Literature makes you more aware of the things you feel

A beautiful idea posed by de Botton is that we are the readers of our own selves. The books and novels we read serve as optical instruments that grant us access to ideas and feelings that we may, deep down, already know but could not quite yet acknowledge. “A book sensitizes us to things we wouldn’t have noticed,” he mentions. De Botton also identifies the problem of putting all our energy into consuming and reading a lot, but never taking the time to think about what you’re reading. “The value of novel is not limited to its own depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognize as our own, yet could not have formulated as our own.”

When it comes to putting into words the feelings I find most difficult to explain, books remain unrivaled. While the solace from fictional works are different from that of which I get from non-fiction pieces, I’ve found myself a bit more self-aware all the same with each read. De Botton explains that the greatest strength of a book is also its limitation which is that it doesn’t leave its reader with answers. “A reader’s wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off,”

A habit I’ve picked up a few years ago was to take photos of pages from books that have left an impression on me and put it all together in one album as something I can go back to. Every now and then, it also comes in handy when a friend asks me for a recommendation.

A few books I would unhesitatingly recommend:

  • Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton – for an honest and relatable re-telling of what love often looks and feels like in your 20s.
  • Three Women by Lisa Taddeo – a striking depiction of how female desire is manifested and perceived written by a journalist
  • The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison – a beautiful collection of essays on the importance of understanding the feelings of another.

Covers of the author's book recommendations based on what have left lasting impressions on her.

Believing in “not having enough time” hinders you

A large portion of the book is centered on taking one’s time, with even an entire chapter solely dedicated in teaching the reader how to do so. De Botton emphasizes that by going about things more slowly, we are able to better see what’s in front of us and what surrounds us. While I do enjoy the instantaneous rush of getting things done fast, I’ve also been guilty of hiding behind the frail excuse of “not having enough time” quite often.

I can’t enjoy a cup of coffee because I have a pile of work I have to finish.

I can’t take the time to call and catch up with a friend because I have other things to do.

I can’t enjoy the scenery because I’m too busy trying to get to where I need to be.

So much of the comfort I can find in these mundane things in life is taken away from me every time I believe that there is truth that I “don’t have enough time”. What’s to enjoy a sip of my coffee, clear my mind, and stare at nothing for a minute? What’s to spend twenty minutes hearing a friend’s voice and to ask how they’re doing? What’s to take a brief moment away from my phone screen and take a closer look at what’s outside? De Botton reminds us that time should not be measured in how much we get done, but in how well we get to do them.

Learning entails being a “good sufferer”

According to de Botton, the Proustian approach dictates that we can’t really learn anything properly until we are faced with problems. He lays down the uncomfortable truth that it is normal for humans to continue their ignorance when everything seems fine. Proust clarifies however that it is possible to think and reflect properly without being in pain. He explains that the two methods of acquiring wisdom is by a) painlessly via a teacher, and b) painfully via life. He suggests that we become even more inquisitive at the face of distress. “We suffer, therefore we think and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context, it helps to understand its origins, plot its dimensions and reconcile ourselves to its presence,” he enthuses.

Carefully thinking about it, I believe the chapter tries to teach us the value of confronting difficult truths—that a “good sufferer” is someone capable of detaching one’s self from pain and grief in order to fully understand why something hurts us. This way, we learn how to better deal with what makes us unhappy and realize that not all suffering has to be in mere vain. The author explains is best, “Happiness is good for the body but it is grief which develops the strength of the mind.”

Excerpt from 'How Proust Can Change Your Life' taken by the author

You construct your own dissatisfaction

In his effort in teaching his readers to appreciate life more widely, de Botton highlights Proust’s therapeutic conception, “…the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.” It’s almost too easy to find or put ourselves in a position where we are unhappy but we tend to fail to see the root of our unhappiness which is often our misconceptions of how we think our life should be. We fail to meet the expectations that we set for ourselves but we rarely ever revisit what’s driving these expectations to begin with.

To fully rid ourselves of unnecessary and self-created unhappiness, we must learn to see our own individual lives in a manner that is more honest and vulnerable. De Botton drives a great point when he says, “Beauty is something to be found, rather than passively encountered that it requires us to pick up on certain details.”

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton is a beautifully written narrative that reminds us to stop living life racing ourselves, but to experience life better and more with less.

Check out last week’s edition of What Keeps Me Calm, featuring a myriad of things, from Pico Iyer’s ‘Autumn Light’ to ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’. What Keeps Me Calm is published every Friday.

Lead photos from Amazon and the author of this story