Once this birthday passes, I’m sure I’ll be fine. I’m not usually susceptible to believing wild generalizations, but preparing to turn 30 will have that effect on a dude. Recently, I fell for two in one week.
The first generalization—reading that a man reaches midlife crisis when he realizes he will never read Proust—was a throwaway line in an article I’ve since been unable to Google, an insignificant aside lodged like a popcorn kernel between the teeth. The second—Chuck Klosterman's concern that, by not reading Harry Potter now, he was dooming himself to eventual cultural obscurity—suggested that I should fear the J.K. Rowling-weaned generation like a robot army.
The rest of this project came down to math. I’m 29, equal distance between high school and 40. There are seven volumes in each set, providing three months of potential beach/subway reading. A distant latch seemed to click: a plan to simultaneously stave off obsolescence and depression by reading 7,202 pages, alternating volumes, in a couple months’ time. But at the end, what? Preparation for my 30s? Transformation? Some sort of silky chrysalis sack for my roommates to clean up?
The first thing I learn is that it’s impossible to read Marcel Proust while listening to baseball on the radio. Since my dream of chipping away 50 pages every day revolves around digging Proust in the cool of the evening during a ballgame broadcast (a slow, pleasant rhythm that usually doesn’t prevent me from reading), this gets us off on the wrong foot, Marcel and me. His sentences are just too long—often half a page or more—and too easily tangled with the early-summer trials of a beleaguered bullpen.
On the other hand, Harry Potter works anytime, anywhere, be it with baseball on the radio or eight-year-old cousins running around, underwear on their heads, pretending to be ninjas. They are opposite types of reading. Proust’s six-volume In Search of Lost Time seems best consumed under the circumstances in which much of it was composed: at night, in a cork-lined room, daylight reserved for sleep. At the very least, in some degree of solitude. And even then, it’s still tongue-gnawingly boring.
But, of course, nestled inside Proust’s semi-autobiographical accounts of socially climbing French sycophants, which feature dinner-party conversations that spill well over 100 pages, is pure psychedelic beauty—observations that remove their author from Time lost or regained and into the ever-present Now, where sensitive souls get lost in how strange it is to be anything at all. If the tome has any plot, it is the slow awakening of the self-consciousness. Which, it soon becomes obvious, is exactly what Harry Potter is all about, too, albeit a bit more externalized via spells, magical loopholes and puberty.
Harry is a page-turner—the big print helps—filled with battling wizards. Proust’s inertia and his aggressively willful tedium are as vast and plain as a still ocean, though the motion beneath the surface is teeming. Proust’s utter psychological paralysis twitches and stutters and reverses course like an urchin crawling over the seabed. Sometimes, if not for the spikes, you want to shake him from his passive-aggression. Other times, his work is outright Lolita-like in its stalking creepiness. If this is what the life examined is all about, then I’m ready to start killing off brain cells.
Proust soon becomes grout, filling the cracks in my time while I wait for trains, or fight sleep in order to meet my quota. While cuddly Harry battles Voldemort and looks for wizard love and saves the universe, Proust’s payoffs come in small, perfect phrases like, “the sparkling and celestial rain of her smile” (as translated by Mark Treharne in The Guermantes Way), or three solid pages on the nature of sleep, beginning with the observation that it’s “like a second apartment [with] its own system of alarms, and we are sometimes brought violently awake there by the sound of a bell, heard with perfect clarity, even though no one has rung” and ending with “an attempt to introduce the obscure, undefined block of sleep that I had just been living into the framework of time.”
Proust and Rowling go about their work in very different ways. The former because of his seeming distance, like the clear glimmer of a star beaming across 100 light years of space and down to Earth. The latter because of her total envelopment. There is absolutely no cultural strain in understanding Potter—partially, of course, because it functions primarily as children’s literature. It moves with a lightness that belies its core darkness.
William Gibson writes, “Books are the oldest and first mass medium. And it’s the one that requires the most training to access. Novels, particularly, require serious cultural training. But it’s still the same thing—I make black marks on a white surface and someone else in another location looks at them and interprets them and sees a spaceship or whatever. It’s magic. It’s a magical thing. It’s very old magic, but it’s very thorough. The book is very well worked out, somewhat in the way the wheel is very well worked out.”
If invoking magic is too predictable when describing the effect of the Potter books, then perhaps technology is a better metaphor. (Arthur C. Clarke famously posited, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) Whatever the metaphor, it is possible to open Potter and put it down 50 or 100 pages later without realizing time has passed. In this regard, Harry Potter is passive entertainment—like a movie—by design and by circumstance. And it’s extraordinarily addictive; time displaced—or perhaps replaced.
Proust, though, takes a long time to consume. I accept that I will miss details, but reassure myself that if it’s really worth it, I’ll come back to it in the future. Odds are, these books will be prescient. As Proust himself points out, books have a built-in technology for that, too. “Some name, read long ago in a book, contains among its syllables the strong wind and bright sunlight of the day when we were reading it,” he observes in Finding Time Again (the Lost Time series’ 7th and final book). It’s one of a string of climactic visions presumably explored in Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was A Neuroscientist, which I would’ve read if I weren't so damned sick of Proust by now.
A lot happens on the verge of 30. College grads migrating into the neighborhood start looking like kids, friends have babies and people known forever start looking appreciably older. In my case, Proust hangs suspended and bonded in Brooklyn’s summertime stickiness in a lull between relationships, and in the seaside air, where my grandfather’s health took a turn for the worse. “It is illness that makes us recognize that we do not live in isolation but are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us, with no knowledge of us, and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body,” Proust offers as comfort, one of a million bits of his text that makes his books a little too much like the world beyond the printed page.
What Rowling offers, by contrast, is absolute escape, a place I want to go, somewhere inherently more organized than wherever I am. During a nine-hour session reading the final book, The Deathly Hallows, in front of the living-room fan, I find myself constantly on the verge of tears, as if I’m watching a Hollywood blockbuster and being manipulated by syrupy strings and carefully chosen song cues. In Proust, the final catharsis is something like reality, a slow unfolding of pain and redemption and inevitable death—all probably more accurate life lessons than Harry Potter could ever provide. Despite being about a boy coming of age, Potter is really about joy, a place where aging makes sense, and where death is only a shortcoming.
Proust died before he could finish revising In Search of Lost Time, at the age of 51, never making it past middle age. By the end, he sounds exhausted, despite his life-altering experiences, leaving one to the conclusion that the life imagined is the one more pleasurable.
It was a bummer when Harry Potter ended. Like everyone else in the world, I could’ve read a few more volumes, but that was also the point: that it did end, and by doing so, provided the ability to slide the final volume onto the shelf with authority and closure—and the memory of a book that helped you fight sleep, even when the summer heat finally disappeared into the night.