In Search of Lost Time inside a Book

Posted by Wally O Neill on

"It is wonderful and magnificent that the gathering of books in this country is not in the hands of college professors and great scholars. It is paradoxically but true that not a single library in the world has been formed by a great scholar.”

ASW Rosenbach


There’s a mild-mannered man who comes into the bookshop every lunchtime to browse. His preferences are eclectic. He never seems to browse the same shelf twice or gravitate towards a particular section. His movements are erratic, random, maybe even doddering.


Flash told me once that the man had lost his memory while reading a certain book. One minute he was engrossed in a specific passage, mesmerised by words. And then in an instant, everything was gone. His memories, his quirks, his relationships, his delusions. He was a blank slate left holding a block of paper.


He had literally been lost in a book.


Years of therapy and unsuccessful memory restoration had led the man to believe that the only chance of regaining what had been lost was by rereading that certain book. Or so Flash says.


Of course, having lost everything, the poor man cannot remember what that book is. And so an eternal quest is carried out daily in search of that certain book which must somehow be found in my maze of bookshelves.



But Flash could be an unreliable narrator.


“Did I tell you the time one of my many lovers had me dress up as big bird during coitus?” he asks me now, winking at the mild-mannered man who continues to browse. “She had a Sesame Street fetish.”


“Its unusual alright.”


“I stuck the theme tune on Spotify and waddled out of the ensuite. Hard to walk gracefully with the big bird feet you see. She was very turned on. I can’t do the voice now but could mimic better back then.”


“What did you say? One of his catch phrases?”


“No, I said, make room for the big bird, and jumped onto the bed. It was great, except my beak kept hitting off the headboard.”


I wonder about the importance of the books we read and how they may form markers in our memory as Flash hums along to the Sesame Street theme track blasting off his iPhone. I wonder if a book can colour an age or period in our lives, if a simple glance at its cover can ignite us with smells and tastes and flashing images of another long gone time. If a simple book can be the time machine to let us relive our past lives.


And can our past lives in turn impact our relationship with that book? Are the books we hate or, worse, the books we love, simply elected by our mental states when we first encountered them?


Could the mild-mannered man’s consciousness, thirty plus years of his experiences and thoughts, really be trapped in a book hidden away somewhere among the quarter of million books in my bookstore?


In 1706, the English philosopher John Locke wrote that, “In all sorts of learning, and especially in the study of languages, the memory is the treasury or storehouse.” He went on to conclude that the memory could be overburdened at times and that another method was needed to support it. This was written in his ‘a new method of making Common-Place-Books.’


So what’s a common place book?


Let’s go back to the early decades of the second century AD. Aulus Gellius was busy compiling a twenty-book collection known as the Attic Nights containing interesting pieces which he encountered during his life, ranging from philosophy, history, biography, all sorts of antiquities, points of law, literary criticism, and lexicographic matters, explanations of old words and questions of grammar.


Gellius had created the first common place books. In the same century, Seneca the Younger suggested that commonplace books be created by those willing to learn and prosper “as if like a bee and by imitation turn them into their own honey-like words.” We may well owe the enduring popularity and survival of rhetoric from great minds like Plato and Aristotle to the use of commonplace books.


The wide spread popularity of these very personal collections in the Victorian period has led to the survival of a huge mass of these books, and it is always exciting to come across one. The Victorians revealed their personal opinions and biases in their uniquely detailed documentation of everyday life. These books are more than just pretty collectibles, they are crucial social history.


I wonder if the mild-mannered man who lost his mind in a book could have preserved at least a photocopy of his personality if he had kept a common place book. Or one of it’s modern equivalents. Blogs. YouTube channels. Podcasts. Social media.


“I’d say he’s a rich mad man,” Flash suddenly says matter-of-factly, inches from where the mild-mannered man is browsing. “Only the rich can afford to lose their mind inside a book.”


The mild-mannered man throws his oblivious gaze upon Flash, but it adds no reason to either of them. “If I was rich, I might lose my mind inside a book myself. After I was finished hooring and drinking. Snorting cocaine off strippers thighs and injecting vodka into my brain with a intravenous needle. Yeah, after a few years of that, then I might lose my mind un a book. Like that rich fool.”


“For a long time I would go to bed early...” – Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time


In the early years of the twentieth century, French author Marcel Proust spent fifteen years working on a mammoth novel, published in sections, that would go on to revolutionise literature.


‘Remembrance of things past’, or ‘In Search of Lost Time’, is a 4,215-page, 1,267,069-word magnum opus dealing with the themes most important to Proust, memory and involuntary memory in particular.


Involuntary memory is the recollection of unsought reminiscences brought on by random everyday encounters or objects. I judge important times in my life by the books I was reading or the bookshops I was in during those days. Just seeing or thinking about those books will bring me back to those times, whether I want to or not.


I remember the bookshop I was in when I learned I was going to be a father. I can easily recall different ages of my life, the many other personalities that have occupied this body, through a litany of read books... Around the World in 80 Days... Foundation... Trainspotting... Slaughter House 5... Old Man Goriot... All instantly bring to surface other me’s.


Proust coined the term ‘involuntary memory.’ When the narrator of Proust's novel eats a tea-soaked madeleine, a long-forgotten childhood memory of eating tea-soaked madeleine with his aunt is restored to him. From this memory, he then proceeds to recall the childhood home he was in, and even the town itself. In this and many other episodes, Proust regards his involuntary memory as containing the essence of the past, something tangible that could be reached and tapped into.


The same tangible something that the mild-mannered man now searches for, if Flash is to be believed. Maybe it worked the same way with him. Maybe a random cue, a certain font or description, or series of words combined, triggered his utter memory wipe. Maybe everything he needs really is hidden in a remote paragraph in a nondescript book.


“I’ve found it!” the mild-mannered man suddenly cries. “I’ve been searching for this.” He hands me a copy of Proust’s epic.


“Is this it? Is this the book that will restore your memory?”


He looks at me like I’m the one who’s lost my mind. And I have for listening to Flash. “What the bloody hell are you talking about? I haven’t lost my memory. I just like Proust but mislaid my own copy.”


Flash nods knowingly after he’s left. “Probably got his memory back when he opened the book but then forgot that he had lost it in the first place. Seen it happen before many times. Common place in fact. Surprised you wouldn’t know that and you surrounded by books all day everyday.”


“Every reader finds himself. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”


- Marcel Proust