After laughing at Lisa Brown’s graphic cartoon on How to Read Proust in the Originalin the New York Times Book Review, and then receiving a box of Sur la Table’s French Petite Madeleine Mix in the mail, I decided to have a “madeleine moment” reading Lydia Davis’ acclaimed translation of Swann’s Way.
Proust is not easy to read, and Davis, a MacArthur Fellow, suggests a slow methodical pace in her introduction, letting the long sentences and heady phrases offer connections to one’s own experiences. I remember reading the famous passage in my fourth year of high school French class, explaining the narrator’s fond recollections of his childhood days as he dips the madeleine in his teacup, but reading the entire book seemed too daunting; reading the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past would be unthinkable. Better to learn the translations of Proust’s more famous phrases.
From Swann’s Way, the first book in the series, Lydia Davis offers easily understandable phrases to note – and remember:
“To get through their days, nervous natures such as mine have various “speeds” as do automobiles. There are uphill and difficult day which take an eternity to climb, and downhill days which can be quickly descended.”
Reading Proust cannot be rushed or taken in one sitting. It could take years, if ever, but I like Davis’ easy translation, and the methodical rhythm of the prose – better digested while eating a madeleine soaked in coffee.
Mahesh Rao commentary on libraries in his New York Times essay “Lost in the Stacks,” reminded me of how libraries have nurtured my own love of reading. My first memory of going to a library is linked to holding my mother’s hand as we walked through the park to a tall building – an adventure to a new world. Later in college I found comfort in hiding behind books in a remote carrell as I studied obscure passages. Just like Rao, I inadvertently forgot to return a book or two, discovered years later in my own collection.
Librarians, more than authors, have always held my reverence. Some are modestly taciturn, never revealing their wealth of information until asked. Others, like Rao’s North London friend, are ready to share common interests and review my selections as I check out more books than I can carry.
Trinity College Library, Dublin
Books about libraries draw me in. Some of my favorites:
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon with the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a library for literary works no longer remembered by anyone. Daniel finds mystery and adventure, as books salve the lingering pain of his mother’s death.
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai connects a children’s librarian with questionable ties to the Russian mafia to a curious 10-year-old boy whose parents enroll him in an anti-gay class and strictly monitor his library material.
This Book is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson challenges the stereotype of librarians. See my review – here
By Its Cover by Donna Leon uses a rare books collection in a prestigious Venice library as the setting for the twenty-third in her series of Guida Brunetti mysteries. My review – here.
As one of the most literate United States Presidents, Obama discussed books with Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for the New York Times. In an interview as he leaves office, Obama noted “…the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.”
Citing books he has recommended for his daughter as she prepares for college – how many have you read? – he included:
The Naked and the Dead
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The Golden Notebook
The Woman Warrior
The Moveable Feast
From some of his favorite authors, I found a few familiar names and two new ones I might try:
science fiction writer, Liu Cixin (The Three-Body Problem)
Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies)
Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon)
V.S. Naipaul (A Bend in the River)
and leaders: Mandela, Martin Luther King, Churchill, Gandhi, Teddy Rossevelt, Abraham Lincoln
And he offered a clue about what he might be doing after January 20th, when a new President will be inaugurated:
“…and so in my post-presidency, in addition to training the next generation of leaders to work on issues like climate change or gun violence or criminal justice reform, my hope is to link them up with their peers who see fiction or nonfiction as an important part of that process.”
Have you finished your shopping for Christmas? Are you still trying to find the best gift for each individual? John Tierney of the New York Times suggests – The Perfect Gift? It’s the One They Asked For. Don’t make gift-giving complicated.
“If you can find one sure thing, don’t be afraid to give it more than once.”
In that spirit – not overthinking – find a great book and give it to everyone.
Vanity Fair offers “The Bookworm’s Bespoke Gift Guide” from Juniper publishing, and the New York magazine lists 15 of the year’s most giftable books including Frantumaglia “for the Ferrantephile “who just can’t get enough,” and Hillbilly Elegies for anyone who keeps asking who voted for Trump. The Journal Sentinal has an exhaustive list, including some of my favorites from Maria Semple, Ann Patchett, and Amor Towles. The Star-Tribune includes a few classics in its 50 best books for holiday giving – many I have on my to-read list, but their best suggestion may be Jon Klassen’s We Found a Hat.
My favorite book to give at Christmas is Bill Watterson’s It’s A Magical World.
As I was walking through the park this morning, I was startled out of my musings when an older woman, looking a little like Mrs. Santa Claus with her red hat and spectacles, cheerily accosted me with her babble. I stopped, not sure what she had said, and wondering if she was someone I had once met but forgotten. Determining she was not among the homeless or crazy inhabitants of the area, I smiled and walked on. Could it be she was just happy and living in the moment? Was she enjoying hygge and passing it on?
Whether it’s joie de vivre, being in the moment, or Christmas spirit – all similar to the concept – hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) seems an idea with merit – although not so new.
The plan is to make simple pleasures matter. Slow down and smell the roses – preferably the fresh cut ones in a crystal vase on your dining room table. Brew some coffee and sip it slowly in a heavy white mug. Enjoy. Slow down. Sound familiar? It’s the runner-up word of the year in Britain – behind Brexit, but the word and concept is Danish.
A friend’s email had alerted me to the hygge phenomenon, and I did a little research to discover what I had missed. I’ve downloaded How to Hygge: Thirty-Three Ways to Lead a Happy, Healthy, Contented Life Through the Danish Art of Hygge on Audible to accompany me while I walk (and discourage anyone else from talking to me).