How I Came to Love My Epic Quarantine Reading Project

Tackling Proust’s famously massive work started as a challenge. Then it turned into something else.

Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

One morning a few weeks ago, I sent my friend a Proust text. It was a photo of a page from Swann’s Way, and it took several attempts for me to capture the near-page-length sentence in its entirety. Next to me, my 2-year-old daughter slowly guided a spoonful of oatmeal into her mouth, noticing my struggle. “Daddy, what are you doing?” she asked. The answer: being insufferable. My friend’s response shortly thereafter confirmed this: “It’s too early for me to follow this sentence.”

Proust’s work has many qualities that might recommend it for pandemic reading: the author’s concern with the protean nature of time, the transportive exploration of memory and the past, or simply the pleasure of immersing oneself in the richly detailed life of another. His novel cycle, In Search of Lost Time, also presents the attractive challenge of surmounting a massive text—multiple volumes, stretching between 3,000 and 4,000 pages, depending on the edition—and the subsequent entry into a rare and rather pretentious club of readers. All of it appealed; I wanted in. What I found was a novel so preoccupied with the minutiae of experience that I had no choice but to reappraise my own.

Before accepting that I was no different from everyone else sublimating their ambition into a “quar project,” my reading habits had changed naturally with the phases of the pandemic. Early in March, as New York City prepared for a shutdown, I felt a sense of adventure in ordering a stockpile of books along with black beans and toilet paper. My first batch included Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, works often cited for their distinctive styles of comedy (self-lacerating and wry, respectively). One night, the two novels happened to be stacked on top of each other beside my bed; I found myself haunted by the cryptic dispatch of their titles.

As spring took hold and COVID-19 ravaged the city, a palpable fear of mortality set in. Frontline workers kept our household equipped as my partner, my daughter, and I negotiated work and play in the relative safety of our Brooklyn apartment. Between attending Zoom meetings and laboriously staging morality plays featuring an all-Elmo cast, reading truly was escapism. As I tore through my first few quarantine reads, I was already anticipating my next book order, and grateful for the time I now had to do the thing I always wished I had more time to do.

When summer began, my attention chafed. Momentum gave way to indolence as I watched yet another projected return-to-work date pass. My eyes would dart between words like the fruit flies sussing out the peaches and plums in my kitchen. I abandoned fiction for history, reading about the birth of modern China, the lead-up to World War I, and the Great Migration, but the allure of the distant past faded quickly. When I switched to philosophy to spur my critical reading faculties, my will buckled after barely 40 pages of Nietzsche. In late June, following the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, reading felt like a frivolous distraction. After months of seclusion, resounding political and human exigencies proved that I could shut the world out for only so long. I flicked through The New York Times on my phone, rarely reaching the end of an article.

As the pandemic continued, small changes flickered through my daily experience: a rented office space close by, the return of our nanny. I took brief comfort in noting that my movement patterns mimicked those of a subsistence farmer in an agrarian society, but soon felt penned in by the lack of mobility and the rote nature of passing time. After failing to get more than a few pages into The Power Broker and Black Reconstruction, I realized that I was asking an awful lot of literature: I wanted a book affecting to the point of transformation; something to unsettle my notions of everything, or anything. I needed a book-cum-ax, as Kafka advised, to aim “at the frozen sea within us.”

On a work call one afternoon, a colleague mentioned his plan to make it beyond the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. More to the point, he intended to consume every volume in succession. I balked at first; I’d read the first volume, Swann’s Way, years ago, and it hadn’t done much for me. But by the end of the call, I had made a decision. I ordered the Modern Library box set of the Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Mayor translation and prepared for the arrival of my ax.

Proust was familiar with self-quarantine. Years of chronic asthma and a fragile physiognomy left him relatively limited in his physical activity. For the last three years of his life, he ensconced himself in his bedroom, blocking out light and sound from a bustling 1920s Paris to try to finish his modernist masterpiece.

Soon after beginning Swann’s Way, I realized that I craved a reading experience like the pandemic itself: one with an ending so far off as to be inconceivable. Proust released me from the typical pressures of reading. Unconcerned with finishing, note taking, or retention, I stopped tracking my progress and let go of any expectation of what I’d read next. (It’s easier to forget about the ending of a story when its last volume is on a shelf in another room.) There was no after, only me and the sinuous sentences, the ones that the philosopher Walter Benjamin called “the Nile of language.”

These sentences became a primer on the importance of contending with the inscrutability of the world. In Swann’s Way, while on a carriage ride near his home, the narrator, Marcel, encounters three cathedral steeples on the horizon and becomes transfixed. Though he can’t fully describe the vision, some ineffable quality in the relationship of perspective and movement draws him in: “In noticing and registering the shape of their spires, their shifting lines, the sunny warmth of their surfaces, I felt that I was not penetrating to the core of my impression, that something more lay behind that mobility, that luminosity, something which they seemed at once to contain and conceal.”

This encounter marks the moment that his project of reconstructing his own life in prose truly begins, but Marcel’s epiphany also prepares the reader to search the surface of things for clues to some greater essence.

The novel’s obsession with perception is part of why so many people find reading Proust to be profound: the philosophical interrogation of time, the discursive meditations on art, the musicality of its structure. Yet beneath these lofty ambitions is the beauty of his descriptions. Characters, emotions, and ideas are all rendered with such precision that the reader never suspects a hierarchy. Take this view of a balcony: “I saw it attain to that fixed, unalterable gold of fine days, on which the sharply cut shadows of the wrought iron of the balustrade were outlined in black like a capricious vegetation.” These visual encounters felt like intimate revelations.

When I reached volume two, Within a Budding Grove, I ignored the urge to feel satisfied by the 600 pages I’d just completed. I wondered about how quickly Proust intended for his readers to read if they intended to complete the entire cycle, if and how that informed his writing. I continued to feel unhurried, as I consumed passages that describe the most static of acts: seeing.

Within a Budding Grove’s second section departs from Paris and Combray for the seaside town of Balbec. Marcel, now in the throes of adolescence, finds himself beguiled by a coterie of girls on the esplanade one afternoon; he begins to contrive a way to insinuate himself with them. This is about all that happens in the entire section; the reader is propelled not by action, but by the anticipation of where Marcel will turn his attention next, as he does with the girls in Balbec: “And this want in my vision, of the demarcations which I should presently establish between them permeated the group with a sort of shimmering harmony, the continuous transmutation of a fluid, collective and mobile beauty.” Proust entrances through a superabundance of quotidian detail.

Soon, the imagistic quality of his writing began to seep into my own experience. On a walk, I noticed the top of a tree crowning above the horizon of a red brick building, and some combination of the play of light, the richness of the bricks’ color, and the leaves’ intricate movements made me pause. I felt as though an ocular dial had been tweaked and the details of my life—objects, surfaces, textures—began to intensify. In the middle of my ceaselessly repetitive pandemic existence, this novel made clear all that the familiar still had to disclose, if I was willing to look.

Now it’s fall, and as of this writing, I’m 200 pages into volume three, The Guermantes Way, named, like Swann’s Way, for one of two garden paths at Marcel’s childhood home of Combray. In its first section, during a discussion between Marcel and his friend Saint-Loup about the aesthetics of war, I discovered a passage that might serve as a statement of intent for In Search of Lost Time: “The smallest facts, the most trivial happenings, are only the outward signs of an idea which has to be elucidated and which often conceals other ideas, like a palimpsest.”

At this point, I’ve read far enough into the novel cycle to hazard a layman’s guess: that Marcel is perhaps the most sensitive creation in all of Western literature. I liken him to a sponge, and not just because of the way he so deeply absorbs the phenomena of experience—but for the way he’s managed to wipe clean the grimy pane of my own perception and change the way I see.

I’ve gotten over texting pictures of pages from the books; instead I type, “Proust bro. PROUST,” whenever inspiration strikes, as it continues to.

One evening last month, I took my daughter to Prospect Park, and we gazed out over one of its lakes as a flock of geese finished bathing and took flight. The water reflected the pastel-tinged sky, and as a breeze blew ripples across the surface, a faint drizzle began, the tiny raindrops pricking the lake’s bright lid. It was overwhelming to watch as various vectors of motion made the scene still more vivid. I grasped for poetry to describe it, before letting go, remembering that experience precedes language. For the moment, I just watched.