“Every reader is the reader of himself [or herself]”

I recently read in Proust’s Time Regained “Every reader is the reader of himself,” and it struck me instantly as true and profound, although I’d never thought it before. Although I’d never thought it before, I had known it before. Now I’m extremely aware of it. We read ourselves not only line by line but also in what we choose to read.

I’m also aware that when I reread, as I do increasingly, a different me reads a different book. Of course, the book is not different, but the me– with accumulated experiences, knowledge, and reading together with decay and things forgotten–is different.

My friend Tony Delamothe saved for me an article from the New York Times by Hisham Matar, a Libyan writer, about reading ourselves. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/opinion/sunday/books-can-take-you-places-donald-trump-doesnt-want-you-to-go.html He includes the Proust quote. The whole short article is well worth reading, but I’ve extracted below what seem to me to be the most important paragraphs.

“…the most magical moments in reading occur not when I encounter something unknown but when I happen upon myself, when I read a sentence that perfectly describes something I have known or felt all along. I am reminded then that I am really no different from anyone else.

Perhaps that is the secret motive behind every library: to stumble upon ourselves in the lives and lands and tongues of others. And the more foreign the setting, the more poignant the event seems. For a strange thing occurs then: A distance widens and then it is crossed.

All great art allows us this: a glimpse across the limits of our self. These occurrences aren’t merely amusing or disorientating or interesting experiments in “virtual reality.” They are moments of genuine expansion. They are at the heart of our humanity. Our future depends on them. We couldn’t have gotten here without them.

Nothing we read can import new or foreign feelings that we don’t, in one form or another, already possess. “Every reader,” as Marcel Proust writes in “Time Regained,” “is actually the reader of himself.” Books can’t install unknown feelings or passions into us. What they can do is develop our emotional, psychological and intellectual life, and, by doing so, show us how and to what extent we are connected.

This is why literature is the greatest argument for the universalist instinct, and this is why literature is intransigent about its liberty. It refuses to be enrolled, regardless of how noble or urgent the project. It cannot be governed or dictated to. It is by instinct interested in conflicting empathies, in men and women who are running into their own hearts, in doubt and contradictions. Which is why, without even intending to, and like a moon to the night, it disrupts the totalitarian narrative. What it reveals about our human nature is central to the conversation today.”



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