Proust on How the Finest Friendships Can be Made by Reading Fiction

Forming friendships with characters we look up to, see ourselves in, and aspire to be like must be one of the greatest gifts of reading fiction.

It’s easy to scoff at the idea that we can become friends with fictional characters, but Marcel Proust makes a convincing argument in Sur la lecture that it’s the perfect term to use:

In reading, friendship is restored immediately to its original purity. With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends – books – it’s because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret and, when we have left them, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: “What did they think of us?” – “Did we make a mistake and say something tactless?” – “Did they like us?” […] All such agitating thoughts expire as we enter the pure and calm friendship of reading (p.40, translation by Keith Oatley)

Our favourite literary characters can teach us how to approach challenging feelings and situations, guide us through hard times, and help us relieve anxious feelings. They can come to mind entirely at random, or we can summon them when we’re in need of some advice. Surely we can count this as a form of friendship?

My greatest literary friend? It must be Pierre Bezukhov from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Other contenders include: Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird and Great Expectation’s Joe Gargery.

Proust on friendships and reading
Marcel Proust, a great believer in the feel-good qualities of fiction. Image source.

To read more about the friendships created and nurtured by literature, check out Keith Oatley’s Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. You can also find the above translated passage of Proust’s Sur la lecture on p38 of the same book.


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Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.