What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Proust Can Change
Your Life

by Alain de Botton

Field-Tested by Andrew Womack

in either Austin, Texas or New York City, New York

It's while on vacation that I'm most susceptible to new ideas. I'd suspect most people are this way as well. Away from the day-in, day-out routine of working and living — sometimes forced away from it, should we have booked an especially long vacation, or one in an especially remote locale — we step away from our regular lives and have the opportunity to analyze ourselves with added clarity. On one such trip, bringing Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, an argument for how Proust is a self-help master, might have provided a memorable experience. And I'm sure it did. I just can't remember where I went.

The primary lesson of de Botton's book is that we should learn to appreciate all the moments in our lives, both the sweet and the suffering, and draw out meaning at every opportunity. Though I've never braved the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, I understand it's about a man who sees a madeleine and remembers his life over the next million-and-a-quarter words.

I purchased my copy of How Proust Can Change Your Life new, many years ago. I know this because at the time, I almost always bought used books. But this one had only just come out, and I really wanted it. So seeing as I was about to go on a trip somewhere, I took the plunge. I still prefer used books, though, and, whenever I get one, I don't discard anything still within the pages — an old receipt, perhaps, or somebody's old bookmark — I leave it inside the book. I suspect a lot of people do this with old books as well. But now when I look inside my copy of the de Botton book, I find inside it a black-and-white photo, only one half of which is developed. It's an upward shot of the cornice of an old building — one that's perhaps four stories tall. The sky is cloudy and the spindly, leafless branches of a tree inhibit my perspective.

I flip it over. The fotomat-printed date on the back says “Jan '97.” I was living in Austin at the time, and now that I remember, it was that Winter I'd come to New York for the first time; because of that trip I decided to move there — it was one of the most significant decisions of my life. I look at the photo again — it's somewhere in lower Manhattan, I'm certain of it.

Andrew Womack is the co-editor in chief of The Morning News. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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