While Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life is nearly twenty years old, the first I heard of it was on a 2015 episode of the Tim Ferriss Podcast. If you’re unfamiliar with Ferriss, he is outwardly a life-hacking blogger and podcaster. However, his deeper drive seems to be helping others live an examined life. I like that, so even though I’m not a life-hacky guy I listen to his show. On that 2015 episode, I found Botton to be especially charming, and I was interested in his comments that philosophy was increasingly becoming irrelevant to the average person because it was becoming more academic/scientific and less useful. The point of philosophy shouldn’t be getting published in journals that only professors read – it should be to help others live well. As something of an amateur existentialist and logotherapist, Botton’s comments resonated with me. Twenty years late to the game, I bought Proust. It’s less straight philosophy but more of a literary self-help book. Maybe all art is philosophy. You tell me!
The concept of the book is fun – Botton uses Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and personal letters to examine major facets of living and provide helpful life advice. Topics especially of interest to me included meaning in suffering, friendship, being happy, and making your life your own. There are specific sections and lessons, but the book as a whole serves as a great example of how to personally enjoy and learn from art.
Proust is under 200 pages; I read it in under a week on the bus. Botton’s writing is friendly, accessible, and treats the reader as a friend rather than a student. While it’s gloriously easy to read, it’s not fluffy. There were several sections that made me think long and hard about how I was living.
My biggest takeaway was to find beauty and meaning in the every day world. As Botton says, “Beauty is something to be found, rather than passively encountered.” Proactively creating a beautiful and meaningful life is a good idea all time time, but especially in 2016.