The Proust Questionnaire — Book Edition

Adrian Shaughnessy Answers The Proust Questionnaire—Book Edition

By Adrian Shaughnessy November 14, 2013
Adrian Shaughnessey, Graphic Designer (ShaughnessyWorks and Unit Editions)
View Adrian Shaughnessy’s Profile

This November marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Marcel Proust’s opus, In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu), originally known in English as Remembrance of Things Past. To honor the occasion, we developed the Designers & Books version of the eponymous Proust Questionnaire, which we’ve sent out to various contributors and friends. Rather than including the questions from the original that asked about a wide array of “thoughts and feelings,” our adaptation focuses solely on the respondent’s relationship to books.


View the complete questions asked in The Proust Questionnaire—Book Edition

Here are the answers Adrian Shaughnessy sent in response to the Proust Questionnaire—Book Edition:

1. Of these, your reading preference: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama:
Between teaching and my work as a design writer and publisher, I rarely have time to read purely for pleasure. Nearly all my reading is nonfiction—criticism, cultural theory, history, politics, music journalism, film writing, some philosophy. I miss the freedom to read fiction, and I’m sure I’m intellectually poorer for it. But I get lots of pleasure from nonfiction, so I don’t lose any sleep over it.

If I get the urge to read poetry, I tend to go for spoken word recordings. Hardly surprising, I suppose, since lots of poetry was written to be recited. A good recording enhances my understanding of a poem in a way that even a close reading can’t match.

I never read drama, and rarely go to the theater—I find theatrical performances too self-regarding and mannered. I can’t make the suspension of belief that is required to become absorbed in theatre. On the other hand, I like to read film scripts, but only of films I’ve already seen.

2. Your favorite childhood book (or favorite childhood author):
Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. My parents were both readers, and as soon as I learned to read, I wanted to move to their grown-up books, which looked much more interesting than my childhood reading matter. I came across a copy of Dr. No, which I read surreptitiously, and found it to be the most intoxicating thing I’d ever encountered. The violence, sadism, and exhilaration spoke to my adolescent self. I was hooked, and read as many Bond novels as I could. This was my passport to adult literature. Looking back, I wish it was something more deserving of my infatuation. I’d rather shoot myself than read a James Bond book now.

3. Your favorite book character:
I’m sure the question is intended to mean a fictional character, but if I’m allowed to include characters from biography and autobiography, them the choice becomes much easier. I’m attracted to flawed geniuses; in many cases grotesque characters. I’ve read a lot of Dickens biographies, and its clear that he was a sort of monster, yet also an utter genius who worked at a rate of creative production that has rarely if ever been equaled. If I have to choose a character from fiction, it would be Raskolnikov, from Crime and Punishment, who kills an innocent woman, and then spends his life in a fever of guilt, tortured self-justification and intellectual pride. Dark stuff but fatally compelling.

4. Your favorite book title (because you like the sound of it):
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Also a fiendishly good book, I should add.

5. A book you could never finish:
I used to feel a sense of shame if I didn’t finish a book, even if it was a slog to read. That feeling has passed. I now dip in and out of books, and no longer feel like a criminal.

6. A book you will never start:
I look at my shelves and I see more books than I could read if I lived to be 100. So naming all the books that I will never read is too big a task for here and now. But, there is no greater joy than finding that a book that has lain unread for years has suddenly become useful. When that happens I feel a wave of mild euphoria.

7. If for some reason it turned out that you could save one and only one book from among those you own, which would it be:
Too difficult. I find it hard to give away or discard any book, so if I were faced with the decision to save one and leave the rest, I’d find it impossible. If it were a fire, I’d save as many as I could carry. I’m not precious about books. I like them bashed and marked, so if a few got singed, I wouldn’t mind.

8. A book you should have read but haven’t:
The Koran.

9. The best “book as object” you own (how it looks over what it says):
All my books are desirable objects, even if they are not great examples of high design and superior production—I still cherish them. I have some books by Josef Beuys–one of my favorite artists—that are in German, and I will never read the words in them, but I cherish them as books, so I suppose they would be my best “book as object.”

10. Your reading speed: very slow; slow; moderate; fast; very fast
I often reread passages of difficult books if I have failed to grasp their full meaning, which of course makes me a slow to moderate reader. This has always worried me, until recently that is, when I read (slowly) an academic book on literary theory where the correct way to read difficult texts was discussed. The author recommended slow reading and he recommended the rereading of difficult passages. This cheered me up, although I’d still like to read faster.

11. While you read, are you a note-taker? If yes, where do you record your notes:
I only take notes if I’m reading with a view to writing something—a text or a lecture. I make almost unreadable notes on any bit of paper I can lay my hands on and then type them up later.

12. Your most idiosyncratic reading habit:
Reading on trains, always. Can’t make a train journey without something to read. Oddly, though I can’t read on airplanes. My attention wanders once the aircraft takes off. I think this is to do with the subliminal fear I have of flying. On the surface, I’m a confident flyer, but deep down my unconscious is working overtime to keep me from thinking about being in a metal tube 35,000 feet above the ocean. If I ever have to eat on my own—in hotels, for example—I can’t eat without reading.

13. The most expensive book you’ve ever bought (and, if you can remember, the price):
I tend not to buy expensive books, I much prefer bargains found in secondhand shops and charity stores. I have acquired some valuable books this way—especially graphic design books, which book dealers tend not to see as having any value.

14. If you could be any author:
Don DeLillo. Or Jack Kerouac, before he became a garrulous drunk.

15. If you are what you read, the book that best says who you are:
The English writer Iain Sinclair comes closest to seeing the world in the way I see it. He delights in the same things I delight in—the connections between things; the hidden threads between the past and the present. He is far better read than me, and a far more insightful person than I’ll ever be, but when reading him, I have that sense of recognition and identification that you get with writers that speak to you directly.

16. Your favorite writer of the gender opposite yours:
Angela Carter, Susan Sontag; I’ve just discovered Rebecca Solnit, and I like the critics Pauline Kael (film) and Janet Malcolm (art). Many years ago, I had a phase of reading George Eliot, who I think is one of the two or three greatest Victorian novelists.

17. The last book you bought:
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit.

18. Your favorite place to purchase books:
Secondhand stores and charity shops.

19. The book you are currently reading:
I always have four or five books on the go at any one time: The Reflective Practitioner by Donald A Schon; Forty-One False Starts by Janet Malcolm; Museum without Walls by Jonathan Meades; Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain by Andy Roberts.

20. The book you will read next:
It’s one of about 12 possibilities.

21. The current location of the book you will read next:
The floor of my home studio.

22. Your favorite format for books: paper or pixels
Either, really. For novels I have a preference for reading on my iPad—tablets are particularly good for continuous text, I find. All art books, or books with lots of illustrations, are still better in physical form—paper, ink, and glue.

23. If you could have written any book:
Underworld by Don DeLillo, or anything by James Joyce.

24. A book that was particularly meaningful to, or highly recommended by, an acquaintance of yours:
One of the books that affected me most was one of Jack Kerouac’s lesser-known works—The Dharma Bums. I read it in the early ’70s and remember being completely enraptured by its spirit—it almost took me over, like an illness. I think it also awakened a love of nature that is with me to this day.

25. If you have the chance to plan it, the last book you’ll read:
Ulysses by James Joyce.

Also see “Celebrating a Proust Anniversary with The Proust Questionnaire—Book Edition.”

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