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Collection Spotlight — How Proust Can Change Your Life

How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton
Reviewed by Harold Henkel, Associate Librarian

“There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness. Had we been placed on earth by a malign creator for the exclusive purpose of suffering, we should have good reason to congratulate ourselves on our enthusiastic response to the task.” So begins this study of the practical benefits careful readers can hope to gain from reading the seven volumes and 3,000 pages that make up In Search of Lost Time.

How Proust Can Change Your Life is simply a work of genius. Alain de Botton believes that Proust is an author to be enjoyed and has written his book with an idea of persuading unsure readers that In Search of Lost Time is an eminently practical book filled with advice for leading a happier, more intensely experienced life. What makes this book so ingenious and often funny is the way de Botton has structured his book as a parody of a self-help manual, with chapters like “How to Express Your Emotions” and “How to Be Happy in Love.” Now, since most readers of high modernist literature would not be caught dead with, say The Complete Being: Finding and Loving the Real You, it would appear at first that the author is indulging in an inside joke with his readers, who of course have turned to him for explication of Proust’s famously difficult book. Nonetheless, in exceptionally graceful prose, de Botton discourses on several major themes of In Search of Lost Time-time, memory, love, jealousy-and demonstrates how, contrary to its reputation for abstruseness, Proust’s novel contains wisdom that really can impact for the better the lives of his readers. For de Botton, In Search of Lost Time fulfills both of Samuel Johnson’s requirements of a book, that it “should teach us to enjoy life, or to endure it.”

Since his book is ostensibly a self-help manual, de Botton does not shy from a practical concern of a reader turning to Proust for greater personal happiness: “Whereas [Proust’s] writing was logical, well-constructed, often even sage-like, he led a life of appalling physical and psychological suffering. While it is clear someone might be interested in developing a Proustian approach to life, the sane would never harbor a desire to lead a life like Proust’s. Could this degree of suffering really be allowed to pass by without raising suspicion [italics added]?” Well, as anyone of a certain age and experience understands, we only really learn through suffering. As Proust put it, “a woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than a man of genius who interests us.” Unfortunately, few of us are able to turn what little wisdom we have acquired into language that can instruct, or at least comfort, fellow-sufferers. The reason for this is our own laziness, first in not taking the time to notice more than a narrow range of the world around us, and secondly in framing our experiences in clichéd language. As Proust writes, “Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undue this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us.”

Although How Proust Can Change Your Life is aimed primarily at readers new to Proust, de Botton, always desirous that his book be practical and beneficial, concludes with a word of caution for readers who might make the same mistake as poor Virginia Woolf when she read Proust. In a letter to fellow Bloomsburian Roger Fry, Woolf wrote, “My great adventure is really Proust. Well-what remains to be written after that? …How at last has someone solidified what has always escaped and made it into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp.” If only Mrs. Woolf had been able to read an admonition of Proust himself in a letter that brims with moderation and common sense: “It is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books…that for the author they may be called “conclusions” but for the reader “incitements”…That is the value of reading and also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.” As de Botton concludes his wonderful book, “Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.”

Are you interested in reviewing a resource in the Library collection? If so, please contact Harold Henkel at harohen@regent.edu.

Collection Spotlight: Handbook on the Knowledge Economy

Handbook on the Knowledge Economy (Front Cover)Handbook on the Knowledge Economy, edited by David Rooney, Greg Hearn, Abraham Ninan

Reviewed by Almarie E. Munley, Ph.D.

Handbook on the Knowledge Economy is an essential work that explains the use of knowledge today in organizations and governments worldwide. The book explicitly states its purpose by outlining a central theme which is to inform the reader by explaining what knowledge is and how it works socially, organizationally, and economically. It is necessary to know the functionality of knowledge to improve and create a more fluid organization. The editors of this textbook collected research that introduces the reader to the historical character of knowledge, followed by an outline of the risk involved when addressing the social capital of knowledge. The handbook moves on to a series of essays from cultural capital to issues on policy related to the knowledgebase. It addresses the much acclaimed issues related to intellectual capital as well as giving the reader an opportunity to review how values play a role in the knowledge economy.

Rooney, Hearn, and Nina’s collection on concepts, policy, and implementation of knowledge progresses through various applicable formalities, addressing strategy and implementation and also imagination and creativity when considering the results of using knowledge. It also allows the reader to understand the position of culture, values, power, communication, risk perceptions, and ethics that are central and effective for knowledge systems.

In outlining some of the most critical pieces of this handbook, let me highlight a few that will catch your eye as we consider the use of knowledge and its importance:

Hitendra Pillay’s “Knowledge and Social Capital” takes into account the ways in which knowledge becomes an asset for society. It highlights the premise that William James stated in 1909: that knowledge at its most basic level is derived from personal meaning and the understanding of the relationships to this meaning. These relationships are greatly influenced by culture, social experiences, and technological artifacts. The premise is that social capital is built on two types: human and cultural. Pillay continues to unveil the process of social and cultural experiences which lead to a tension between economic and social capital. In conclusion, the author confirms that “the development of a global transactional economy and the pursuit of self-interest driven by capitalist ideologies, our moral and social values have been gradually transformed to support an ethic of single-minded competitiveness. Morals related to ‘social good’ are being eroded by the push for a market-driven society – a world where economic maximization seems to be the only focus” (p.85). Pillay continues to voice the need to understand and manage trade-offs inherent in the tensions between the different types of capital posited here. This should then bring us to a holistic model by which we may promote a balanced knowledge society.

Another interesting factor in considering the knowledge economy is the creativity within the process. This is the subject of Mark Banks’ article “Managing Creativity in the Knowledge Economy.” Banks notes that there are many options to an organization wishing to become more creative. Possibilities include not only importing specialized training into the workforce, but actually maximizing on the incubators and generators already at work. There are specific structures that act as incubators in organizations today, yet most managers do not know what they are. Banks moves the reader to an understanding of a “community of practice,” which works as a group of people informally bound together, sharing knowledge to pursue a goal or to solve problems in an organization. It suggests that practice is a key role in providing creative venues for organizations. Managing creativity becomes more challenging when you try to define creativity across various industries – how do you actually do this? Banks insists that creativity requires a direct management. The other side of the coin is the challenge not only to manage, but to bring actual change to the organization. There are many opportunities to enhance organizational creativity. The problem is the “poor state of knowledge” about creativity in the workplace. Banks suggests that managers and organizations alike consider the following questions:

  • How is creativity defined in the context of a firm?
  • Who possesses it and in what forms is it expressed?
  • What value is placed on creativity as an internal resource?
  • How do intrinsic and extrinsic organizational structures enhance or undermine creativity? (p.226)
    • The essays in Handbook on the Knowledge Economy comprise a rich representation of perspectives on how knowledge is treated, including from the social, economic and organizational standpoint. I do believe these chapters will provoke more thought and encourage readers to consider the importance of managing knowledge wisely.

      Almarie E. Munley, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Organizational Leadership and Management in the School of Undergraduate Studies.