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Proust on Why We Read

“The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own, so that at the moment when the book has told us everything it can, it gives rise to the feeling that it has told us nothing.”

Proust on Why We Read

How is it that tiny black marks on a white page or screen can produce such enormous ripples in the heart, mind, and spirit? Why do we lose ourselves in books, only to find ourselves enlarged, enraptured, transformed? Galileo saw reading as a way of attaining superhuman powers. Half a millennium later, his modern counterpart Carl Sagan extolled books as “proof that humans are capable of working magic.” For Kafka, they were “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” For the poet Mary Ruefle, “someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world.” “A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her lyrical meditation on why we read and write.

One of the truest and most beautiful answers to this perennial question comes from Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922).


By his mid-twenties, Proust had already published pieces in prestigious literary journals. But he was yet to write a novel. When he was twenty-six, a thousand pages into his first attempt, he found himself stumped and unable to make the book cohere. That’s when he discovered the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin, whose writings blew his mind open.

Over the next three years, Proust immersed himself in Ruskin’s prolific body of work and, despite his imperfect English, set about translating into French the books that had most moved him, obsessively annotating them with footnotes. Many years later, Proust would come to write in the seventh and final volume of In Search of Lost Time, his now-legendary novel building on the themes he had attempted to explore in that frustrated first attempt:

I realised that the essential book, the one true book, is one that the great writer does not need to invent, in the current sense of the word, since it already exists in every one of us — he has only to translate it. The task and the duty of a writer are those of a translator.

Proust’s translations of Ruskin took on a life of their own. They came to embody what the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, in the discussing the translation of her own work, extolled as “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original.” The preface to one of his Ruskin translations became a second original so miraculous that it was eventually published separately as On Reading (public library). In it, Proust considers the pleasurable paradoxes of reading:

Reading, unlike conversation, consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought while remaining alone, or in other words, while continuing to bring into play the mental powers we have in solitude and which conversation immediately puts to flight; while remaining open to inspiration, the soul still hard at its fruitful labours upon itself.

Art by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston from A Child of Books, an illustrated love letter to reading
Art by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston from A Child of Books, an illustrated love letter to reading

He contemplates the irrepressible, universal pleasure of childhood reading:

There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all: the days we spent with a favourite book. Everything that filled others’ days, so it seems, but that we avoided as vulgar impediments to a sacred pleasure — the game for whose sake a friend came looking for us right at the most interesting paragraph; the bothersome bee or sunbeam that forced us to look up from the book, or change position; the treats we had been forced to bring along but that we left untouched on the bench next to us while above our head the sun grew weaker in the blue sky; the dinner we had to go home for, during which we had no thought except to escape upstairs and finish, as soon as we were done, the interrupted chapter — our reading should have kept us from perceiving all that as anything other than obtrusive demands, but on the contrary, it has graven into us such happy memories of these things (memories much more valuable to us now than what we were reading with such passion at the time) that if, today, we happen to leaf through the pages of these books of the past, it is only because they are the sole calendars we have left of those bygone days, and we turn their pages in the hope of seeing reflected there the houses and lakes which are no more.

Proust echoes Hermann Hesse’s elegant case for why the highest form of reading is non-reading and considers the supreme reward of reading:

This is one of the great and wondrous characteristics of beautiful books (and one which enables us to understand the simultaneously essential and limited role that reading can play in our spiritual life): that for the author they may be called Conclusions, but for the reader, Provocations. We can feel that our wisdom begins where the author’s ends, and we want him to give us answers when all he can do is give us desires. He awakens these desires in us only when he gets us to contemplate the supreme beauty which he cannot reach except through the utmost efforts of his art… The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own, so that at the moment when the book has told us everything it can, it gives rise to the feeling that it has told us nothing.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s assertion that books “give us the model of self-transcendence… a way of being fully human,” Proust suggests that a great book shows us the way to ourselves, and beyond ourselves:

Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it.


What is needed, therefore, is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude.

Complement On Reading with Hesse on the three types of readers, Neil Gaiman on what books do for the human experience, and Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s wonderful illustrated love letter to reading, then revisit Proust on love and how the intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart.


Time Is When: A Charming Vintage Children’s Book About the Most Perplexing Dimension of Existence

“Time is from before to now; from now to later. Time is when.”

Time Is When: A Charming Vintage Children’s Book About the Most Perplexing Dimension of Existence

“What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track,” science writer James Gleick wrote in the final pages of his invigorating tour of our temporal imagination. Central to Gleick’s inquiry into our relationship with time is the observation that even humanity’s greatest thinkers, be the scientists or philosophers or poets, have failed to offer an adequate definition of what time actually is, producing instead a variety of aphorisms, wisecracks, and other clever evasions. (Susan Sontag, riffing on John Archibald Wheeler: “Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once.” Richard Feynman: “Time is what happens when nothing else happens.” Augustine: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.”)

Perhaps Borges put it best in his exquisite “refutation of time”:

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.

Still, despite how central time is to our experience of reality — it colors our psychology, it makes the fabric of life elastic, and it locates our thinking ego — we have failed to make our language and logic cohere around it.

When Gleick was a boy of six, his mother, Beth Youman Gleick, gave her own answer to this perennially slippery question in Time Is When — a charming children’s book exploring one of the first external experiences of which we are aware: the substance and passage of time.


The original 1960 edition, now nearly impossible to find, features marvelous vintage artwork by sculptor and illustrator Harvey Weiss, who belonged to the same circle of Connecticut author and artist friends as Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak. In 2008, the book was reprinted in a new edition with different illustrations, but the original — of which I was fortunate enough to track down a surviving copy — remains singularly scrumptious. Weiss’s drawings offer the perfect visual counterpart to the limber curiosity and elegant simplicity with which Gleick tackles one of the greatest complexities of existence by illustrating how the fragments in which we experience time — parts of the moment, parts of the day, parts of the year, parts of a lifetime — shape the nature and texture of our experience.

















For an Eastern counterpart, see this uncommonly beautiful and subtle Japanese pop-up book about time and the cycle of life, then revisit Bertrand Russell on the nature of time, Sarah Manguso on its confounding and comforting ongoingness, and Gaston Bachelard on our paradoxical experience of it.


Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations

“Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory.”

Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” So wrote E.B. White in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York. But meaning never exists in the singular in this city of infinite multiplicity, this mecca of idealism, iconoclasm, and codified idiosyncrasy, which means many different things to its eight million inhabitants and seven billion onlookers — a densely populated capital of loneliness, a canine kingdom, an ever-changing castle, a city that makes and breaks the American dream, a city that impelled Walt Whitman to demand: “Keep your splendid silent sun… Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum… give me the streets of Manhattan!”

The poetics of that multiplicity is what Rebecca Solnit, in collaboration with Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, explores in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (public library) — the culmination of Solnit’s cartographically scrumptious trilogy, after Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, exploring “what maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we know where we are.” The trilogy, Solnit notes, arose from “the belief that any significant place is in some sense infinite, because its stories are inexhaustible and the few that are well known overshadow the many worth knowing.” Any place can therefore be mapped in innumerable ways, each casting before the viewer a particular point of view and thus contributing to cartography’s long history as power and propaganda.

The twenty-six maps, each accompanied by an original essay, explore facets of the city as varied as its songscape, its linguistic wilderness, its notable women, its brownstones and basketball courts, its riots, and its various human and physical energy systems.

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley




Beyond the revelations of this particular city, the maps reveal the nature of all cities as functions of human intention with its always dual and often dueling capacities for good and evil, for revolution and repression, for power and prejudice, for creation and destruction. To map any city is to present a polished mosaic of selective memory built atop the rubble of selective forgetting. In reimagining the social and cultural landscape of New York, Solnit and Shapiro reclaim the unmapped territories of being and the untold stories of beings marginalized by the dominant psychogeographies of their time — from women to Native Americans to wildlife species.

Solnit writes in the introduction:

A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being born, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure, a center for capital and for attacks on capital, a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy, a destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what they’re looking for, an argument about how to live, and evidence that differences don’t always have to be resolved, though they may grace and grind against each other for centuries.


Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory. So a city and its citizens constitute a living library.

With an eye to the inherent incompleteness of any cartographic representation of a place as rife with infinite possibility as a city, Solnit adds:

Each of us grasps and inhabits only part of the pattern. The complexity beyond comprehension is one of the marvels of great cities, their inexhaustible, ever-renewing mystery… Every city is many places; the old woman and the young child do not live in the same city, and the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the wheelchair-bound, black and white inhabit different but not completely separate realms.


A city is not one or the other of these things but all of them, contradictions and collaborations and conflicts together, forever churning and spitting out new possibilities.

Among the peculiarities of New York, a city that is at once a template and a glorious oddity, is the mismatch between its location and its significance — perched on the periphery of the country and hanging off the very edge of the continent, it is nonetheless an epicenter of creative culture and intellectual life. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable words on the crucial difference between being in the middle and being at the center, Solnit captures the centripetal force of this peripheral city:

The opera diva from the rustic West at the center of Willa Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark leaves small-town Colorado for Chicago for her first round of education as a musician, but she triumphed by becoming a successful artist in New York, as Cather did herself for the last forty-one years of her life. There she wrote vividly about the West, while living with her partner, editor Edith Lewis, in the East, where a publishing job had brought her and where privacy, tolerance, sophistication, maybe access to Europe and editors, seem to have kept her.

It’s a reverse of the old mythic westward migration for freedom — though it’s worth remembering that other New Yorkers left the city in search of liberation, whether it was the patrician Edith Wharton checking out of the closed upper-class society she continued to write about or James Baldwin escaping American racism for a while. Then there’s Djuna Barnes, who had a lively early career with the New York newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Walt Whitman once edited, moved on to a legendary era in lesbian Paris, and then spent the reclusive last half of her life on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. You could come to New York to appear or to disappear; the city accommodated all kinds of wishes.


New York is a center that pulls people in and a centrifuge that spins them out into the world.

Cather, Wharton, and Barnes are among the women depicted in one of the most fetching maps in the atlas, City of Women, which reimagines the iconic New York City subway map — a feat of graphic design but a failure of social justice, with its complacent abundance of stops named after white men. In this alternative version, each stop on the city’s twenty-two subway lines is renamed after a notable woman who was born, lived, or made her name nearby.

Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority
Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority

Populating this transit of Venus is an eclectic cast of writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and other luminaries, including Hannah Arendt, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Mead, , Nora Ephron, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Audre Lorde, Ella Fitzgerald, Maira Kalman, Louise Bourgeois, and Anaïs Nin.(I’d be remiss not to savor the supreme, if solipsistic, existential satisfaction of being placed as near as I will ever get to Susan Sontag, my great abiding hero.)



Another map, The Singing City, plots New York’s musical creativity onto a typographic songscape celebrating “the ways that what starts as a particular place can end up as the tune that you hum, a song line with no guidance other than to the human heart.”

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon


What Is a Jew? captures the astonishing diversity of the subpopulation associated with New York’s intellectual elite but, in reality, spanning a vast spectrum of inclinations, interests, and legacies. (One can grasp that staggering range in reading Alfred Kazin’s poignant reflections on the loneliness of being in a culture but not of it, penned amid Brooklyn’s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood as Robert Moses, another Jew, was masterminding Manhattan across the river.)

Cartography: Molly Roy
Cartography: Molly Roy

Solnit, herself the daughter of a Jewish New Yorker mother, introduces the map:

Stereotypes and generalizations generally precede discrimination. Often they depend on the belief that all members of the hated group have common characteristics, so much so that you can punish any member for the sins all members share. Except that they don’t. Categories are leaky, anomalies often occur, and differences within groups can matter as much or more than similarities. You could make this map, pointing up diversity, of any ethnic group, but we made it of Jews because New York has the greatest concentration of Jews on earth outside Israel, and because the word Jew contains a host of internal contradictions, from positions on Israel and capitalism and religion to race and class. What can you say of a group that, even within New York, ranges from Busy Siegel to Sammy Davis Jr. to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Beastie Boys? Whether Judaism is a culture, an ethnicity, or a religion is an unresolved question for people who are good at questions, and even Judaism the religion runs from the progressive inclusiveness of Chelsea’s queer-friendly Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to the mysticism and strictures of the Hasidic ranks of Williamsburg. What is a Jew? This is an exploration without an answer, or with as many answers as there are Jews.

Riot! depicts the eruptions of unrest and revolution in “a city at a simmer that boils over readily.”

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harper's Weekly, August 1, 1863
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863

In the accompanying essay, Luc Sante makes clear that most of these uprisings sprang up when the systemic abuse and oppression of minorities reached a breaking point, from the Stonewall riots to the aftermath of Eric Garner’s murder in the hands of the NYPD. (I’m reminded here of Chinua Achebe’s astute observation that those who condemn something as too political are simply those who see it as discordant with their politics and who prefer the status quo undisturbed, so the very act of labeling a civic event a “riot” can itself be a function of the oppressive status quo.)



Indeed, dissent, difference, and divergent viewpoints are core to the genome of the city’s spirit — this city, as any great city. These, after all, were the conditions that catalyzed the emergence of the revolutionary Vienna Circle in the early twentieth century, which forever changed the course of art, science, and philosophy. I recall a poignant passage of May Sarton’s journals, in which she describes Dallas — “just plain inhuman, too rich, too new” — as a city of artificial beauty empty of poetry, where people are “starved for a kind of reality that does not exist in Neiman Marcus fur coats, in changes of fashion, in redecorating,” where “under the polite small talk, one sensed nostalgia, the nostalgia of the bored child who does not know what he lacks, but knows he is being deprived of something essential to his well-being.” Such homogeneity of privileged politeness threatens to sap any city of its essential energy. With an eye to these forces “driving diversity and complexity” out of the city, Solnit asks:

What are cities when the qualities that have defined them are drowned in rising tides of what we call wealth — that increase in holdings for some that increases scarcity, desperation, and exclusion for others?

The odd notion of the central city as a place where bohemia and dissent thrive has been withering away as cities become enclaves of the affluent and the corporate — or empty zones. Many of the condominiums and luxury apartments are often unoccupied, either because they’re not primary residences, or because they’re places to park money for the transnational super-wealthy or their corporations.

Reflecting on a world where gentrification has inverted Langston Hughes’s lament about white flight, Solnit adds:

The poor are pushed to the periphery, to the old suburbs, which fall into their own kind of decay. In the inner city the poor had access to shared resources like public pools and parks, to public transit, and to the possibility of a collective power and civil society engagement that the suburbs do not offer. There they become literally marginal.


Cities are not over. But it’s hard not to fear that the great cities of the North are never going to be what they were. Just as most have cased to be centers of industrial production, so they may cease to be centers of cultural production, at last with the intensity they once possessed. Now they’re menaced by climate change, too. New York CIty’s coastline will be pummeled with hurricanes and blizzards; hotter, wetter weather will bring the kind of heat waves that tend to kill seniors; food prices will likely rise, and climate refugees will become a new subpopulation. It’s impossible to say exactly what this city, like other great cities ceasing to be what they were, will become.

Brooklyn Villages, laid out in the style of the first modern world map, plots former Native American settlements, original Dutch and English villages, and Freedmen’s towns alongside contemporary housing complexes and real estate developments. My own home nestles uncomfortably between a onetime Ihretonga settlement and the aptly named “Rapacious Developers Village” of today.

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew



And yet the stories told in this atlas — for every map is a story — are decidedly redemptive. They offer considered counterpoints which, in exposing the fragments of our sociocultural brokenness, compose us closer to wholeness.

Noting the “special incandescent joy” with which we humans respond to maps, Solnit examines her criteria for these cartographic redemptions:

Maps demand work, and this kind of cerebral work can be exhilarating.

By a good map I mean an aesthetic one, a map that is an invitation to the imagination, a map that offers a fresh view of the familiar or an introduction to the unfamiliar or finds the latter in the former. If every map is a story, most of them are mysteries that invite you to solve them while remaining forever unsolved, in that they indicate more — more past, more future, more adventures, more travels. They have an openness, indicating more than they depict.

Maps, Solnit reminds us, are above all exercises in editing, both conscious and unconscious:

A map can trace one story, though it often portrays the coexistences of many stories in relation to each other. It can show how the physical, economic, visual, and social landscape can shape those stories, letting some bloom, grinding out others. Multiple stories in spatial relation become the geosocial constellations of our lives…

A map is a proposition: here is what this place is, or was, or will be. Most contemporary maps are predictable propositions: here are streets and freeways and also parking and maybe shopping or subway lines. But imagination can always go beyond what even the most quotidian map shows. You know that when you exit the Columbus Circle subway stop, Central Park will be there, and that may evoke majestic trees or strolls or memories of crimes or performances; or the Mets-Willets Point subway stop in Queens on the 7 may make you think about the Unisphere or Venus and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open or when the ash heaps described in The Great Gatsby were nearby.

We furnish maps with imagination; they offer us rooms to furnish thus. Even the most straightforward map is an invitation…

In orienting oneself in this atlas — and orient is a fitting word in speaking of New York, for it comes from the Latin oriens, meaning to find east by looking for the rising sun — one is invited to fathom the many New Yorks hidden from history’s eye. But, more than that, the atlas stands as a reminder that maps make cities as much as cities make maps, and that humans make meaning through how we build and map and live our cities and our stories.

Undergirding the project is a certain countercultural quality in calling on paper maps to nurture us with richer meaning in an age when digital maps feed us mere information. In a sentiment that harkens back to her beautiful meditation on how modern technology is changing our experience of time and place, Solnit writes:

Digital devices tend to offload knowledge from brains to machines, promise us that our ignorance will be adequate because machines will augment us. All recording technologies do this, but paper maps have a way of transferring their data to your mind, so that you become the map. You don’t become the phone. Expertise about place never becomes yours with the digital devices, but it often does with paper, which, paradoxically enough, makes paper a more fluid interactive technology.


In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Nonstop Metropolis, Solnit, Shapiro, and their venerable stable of writers go on to celebrate “the complexity, the layers and tangles, the cross-pollinations and conflicts, the hidden and overlooked, the ugly and beautiful” aspects of the city. Complement it with pioneering photographer Beatrice Abbott’s stunning black-and-white portraits of New York’s changing face and Jack Kerouac’s tour of the unseen New York, then revisit Solnit on living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, the rewards of walking, what reading does for the human spirit, and how Muybridge shaped visual culture.

Maps courtesy of University of California Press; photographs by Maria Popova


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