Daily coronavirus numbers. Protests in Belarus. Bomb in Beirut. TikTok ban in the U.S. Assignment notification from professor.
Quarantine and social distancing make us feel like we’re slowing down and taking a few steps back from our once busy routines. But our lives are still very much the same — just virtual. We might have paused for a bit at the beginning of the pandemic, but it seems to me that things are back to normal, at least in terms of school and work expectations. If anything, the blurring of the lines between work and play as a result of virtual living has caused us to become more distracted with notifications, news stories and other stress-inducing prompts.
News articles, for example, are short, and consist of simple, terse sentences, making them easily readable while waiting in line for your coffee, or in your five-minute break between classes. Such content, however, contributes to the restlessness of our lives, even if we remain physically sedentary.
In comparison, I have found that reading texts that challenge the default way we take in information are particularly helpful to slow down and relax. Take, for example, Marcel Proust’s seven volume magnum opus À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, known in English as In Search of Lost Time.
Proust is known for his refusal to use a full stop; his descriptions a free flowing association of ideas. Here’s one sentence from the first volume, Swann’s Way
“I will never forget, in a curious town in Normandy near Balbec, two charming eighteenth-century houses that are in many respects dear to me and venerable and between which, when you look at it from the lovely garden that descends from the front steps to the river, the Gothic spire of a church hidden behind them soars up, appearing to complete, to surmount their facades, but in a material so different, so precious, so annulated, so pink, so polished, that you see clearly it no more belongs to them than does the crimson crenellated spire of some seashell, tapering to a turret and glazed with enamel, to the two handsome, smooth pebbles between which it is caught on the beach.”
This kind of long-winded, multiline sentence is rather representative of the novel’s style. One cannot skim the Proustian sentence; one must give it its due by reading it slowly and carefully to reconstruct it in one’s head and make sense of it. The first time I had to read Proust, I went out of my mind: it seemed like I needed to exert more energy than usual to read the book. But that was just because I was trying to impose my way of reading — or rather, consuming — content.
When I came back to Proust with an open mind, allowing the text to tell me how it wants to be read, it was an activity I looked forward to the most after a long day of Zoom classes and meetings. Reading was no longer a burden from trying to unpack the extra long sentences. Rather, by allowing the text to wash over me, I let my brain wander like Proust's narrator. Indulging the text's nonlinearity, then, became a pleasurable act rather than a stress inducing one
Texts like In Search of Lost Time want to wash over you; they want to consume you, rather than the other way around. For Proust, art is supposed to make us see what we have grown used to, to make unfamiliar that which is familiar to us.
Proust’s long sentences are just one way for us to reorient our mode of attention. Sometimes, absurd, or unexpected, imagery forces us to take a step back and think. The absurdist poetry of Daniil Kharms is an example of this.
In a prose poem titled “A Sonnet,” he writes
“A peculiar thing happened to me: I suddenly forgot what comes first—7 or 8? … [my friends and I] went down to the commercial store … and asked the cashier there about our incomprehension. Smiling a sad smile, the cashier extracted a small hammer from her mouth, and twitched her nose slightly. She said: ‘In my opinion seven comes after eight, but only when eight comes after seven.’”
In this example, what makes the reader slow down isn’t the sentence length, as in Proust, but rather the imagery itself. The unexpected yoking of words together — “The cashier extracted a small hammer from her mouth” — as well as the apparent philosophical depth of the last statement makes one stop, reread and contemplate.
And for those of us who are theoretically minded, we might find solace in reading dense theory by the likes of philosopher Jacques Derrida, known for his founding of the field called deconstruction. He has a bad reputation for writing inaccessibly, but reading his work slowly and attentively might result in unexpected eureka moments.
With that said, the materiality of the book itself is also an important aspect of taking a step back. After staring at screens all day long, reading Proust on the screen might have the opposite effect of what is intended. Running your fingers against the paper grain, dog-earing pages, and scribbling notes in the margins also help ground us in the world after a long day of virtual existence.
Between push notifications and quick, easy reads, we have become numb, tired and consumed. But if we allow ourselves to shift our mode of attention by reading texts that denaturalize and defamiliarize the world as we’re accustomed to seeing it, the mundane gains new currency, allowing us to break away from the sameness and restlessness that plague our lives.
Tom Abi Samra is Senior Opinion Editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.