“Proust Was a Neuroscientist”

July 30, 2008 at 4:23 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | Leave a comment

This book is much more about neuroscience than about Proust, which may or may not be a selling point for you.  There has been a spate of books lately that attempt to make an author of a certain rarefied reputation more approachable for a broader audience.  Examples include How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Jane Austen Book Club, A Life of One’s Own (about Virginia Woolf), and, I’m sure, many others.  Myself, I’d rather just muddle my way through on my own, thank you.  It’s interesting that Proust stands out here, because he is only one of eight cultural figures discussed in the book.  Perhaps Escoffier Was a Neuroscientist would have landed directly on the remainder table.  Or perhaps Proust, with his multi-volume, 4000-page novel, just had the most intellectual cred.

 

Jonah Lehrer appears to be a bit of a wunderkind.  His author photo made me think “Doogie Howser!”  Perhaps that’s disrespectful, with his being a Rhodes scholar and all.  This is indeed a very scholarly work.  Lehrer writes knowledgeably about literature, about painting, about music, and even about cooking, in between all that neuroscience.  It’s intimidating.  One would very much get the impression that Lehrer has in fact read the entire oeuvres of Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf.  Maybe he has, in which case I would pay a dollar to see his LibraryThing list.

 

I’d like to throw in a note of history, though, since that’s the only arena from which I can reliably speak.  First, about Proust, I thought everyone knew about the cookie thing.  In Search of Lost Time begins with the fictional Proust eating a madeleine, a little lemon shortbread cookie.  Yet what he ate in real life that stirred his memories was a crust of toast.  This was in the introduction of the translation I read (of volume one; for full disclosure, I’m only two volumes in).  I found this fascinating, and the sort of detail that would contribute to Lehrer’s premise that memory is not totally reliable and can be altered through the act of remembering.  Second, about Stein, Lehrer uses a famous misquote.  He says, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”  It’s actually “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” a hoary example from all those “all the famous quotes you use are inaccurate” books. I’m not an expert in any field, but I do believe in research – and in my case, it’s necessary, because I’ve been known to argue strenuously to back up contentions such as that Bronson Pinchot played James Bond (when he actually played Balki from Perfect Strangers, and I was confusing him with Pierce Brosnan).  But Lehrer didn’t set out to write a history book.  What he did write was an impressive blend of science and the arts.

 

Proust Was a Neuroscientist is a fascinating read, surprisingly dense for its small size.  I look forward to more from Jonah Lehrer.

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