In his In Search of Lost Time, the French writer Marcel Proust makes a comparison between writing a book and making a dress. His narrator, who is just about to embark on writing a novel, says that instead of building it “ambitiously like a cathedral” he is going to craft it “quite simply like a dress”.
Sometimes you read a book that falls apart mid-sentence. Sometimes the sentences hold together so tightly you can hardly stretch your imagination. Sometimes a story simply fits: it is tensile and provides support all at once. Some are voguish and bold, others plain and dowdy.
The book-as-a-dress comparison is ingenious in numerous ways. For one, it lends us a way of looking at a novel as so much more than simply its plot or the basic story. While the plot is something that might give an overall shape to a book, like a certain model to a dress, there is a lot more we judge it by than the basic shape — the colour and feel of the material, and how the invisible seams hidden from sight hold it together.
In order to make a quality dress, you need quality material. The fabric needs to be woven with thought and feeling — in the book’s case, of thought and feeling. For example in Proust’s own Search, despite its colossal scale of over three thousand pages, very little happens. Or rather, very little happens in terms of action, while the stuff you might often gloss over in life becomes hugely important. (The crux of Proust, one might say, is that the ordinary becomes extraordinary when it happens to you.)
Woven by time and spread at the writer’s feet, Proust’s material is something familiar to all of us, since he often writes about memories; something we have all been sleeping in, dressed up in, something with which we have been attracting looks from others or, alternatively, shielding ourselves. He cuts pieces of the past and stitches them together into something unique.
Not all books represent this kind of mode of production, of course. There are also what you might call ‘sweatshop books’ that travel along the endless production lines, made of cheap, badly dyed fabrics, uniform and not necessarily accompanied by any love for the craft. Some people like these products, and that is their business — but unavoidably such artefacts get worn out rather quickly.
Another brilliant aspect of Proust’s ‘not-cathedral-but-a-dress’ imagery is that if writing a book is like making a dress, then reading a book can be thought of as wearing one. The imagery effectively ridicules divisions between intellectualism and ‘everyday’ life. It breaks down the subject-object opposition between reader and text: a novel is not a holy shrine with limited access. Instead of visiting a ‘cathedral,’ going in and coming out again, the reader can put the text on and wear it out in the world. While someone else has crafted it, the dress subsequently becomes a part of its wearer.
Of course, clothes famously do not make a man: a garment can never transform us completely, and neither does a book lose its autonomy as a work of art when it is read by thousands or millions of readers and interpreted in different ways. But surely for most of us, what we put on does affect the way we feel, look and behave, and in this sense, what we wear does become a part of who we are. In the same way as with a dress — we can’t just know by looking whether it will fit us — with a book, it is not just what the book is about that affects us when we read: where, when and how we read condition our experience too. The hours of reading are the fitting, the making-up-your-mind, the falling-in-love — or not.
Think of your favourite clothes, those perhaps already a bit worn out, the ones that are so comfortable and incredibly difficult to throw out. It is similar to have a favourite book: when we first ‘put it on’ it seems to shape us and sometimes even change us, but the longer we wear it, the more it becomes moulded to our shape. Indeed, perhaps this is what Proust’s Narrator means when he says he wants his readers to be not his readers, but “the readers of their own selves”. A book we fall in love with can reveal to us a lot about ourselves, for if we love it, we will end up walking around wearing it and embracing life through its textile.