If you search for In Search of Lost Time on Amazon.com you will find yourself directed to something called the "Proust 6-pack". Upon closer examination this turns out to be the Modern Library edition, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright.
Fine. Easy. I ordered it, along with Paintings in Proust, which Amazon offered at a discount (so long as I bought both -- who can resist a deal like that?).
Yet that odd juxtaposition of words -- "Proust 6-pack" -- stayed with me in the days and even weeks that followed. Like the proverbial rubbernecker on the road, I just couldn't help myself. I kept turning back to the scene of the accident.
So I've been thinking about what it was about this whole "Proust 6-pack" thing that disturbed me. I mean, really, it's just a way to say six volumes... What's my problem? The answer, I suspect, has to do with neuroscience.
I happened to read a great book this summer, called Brain Bugs, on the cognitive biases in the human brain.
In this book, the author, Dean Buonomano, gives a very clear explanation of the latest findings on how the brain creates meaning.
It turns out that our brains are not built like filing cabinets, as many of us grew up thinking. You can't simply insert a definition here, a name there, a memory here, an emotion there, and then retrieve them later as needed. What happens, on the contrary, is that, from our earliest encounters with the world on to the present moment, we have been and are forming neural networks, webs of connection between individual neurons in our brains.
So, for example, when you or I think of, say, Proust, a pulse of electricity moves across our respective, corresponding neural networks, branching out in many different directions.
What happened when we first encountered the words "Proust 6-pack"? Well, we had to create connections between very different neural networks. In my brain, for example, there was this "Proust" network, which linked to... James Joyce, to a dusty, gray, three-volume set of the Recherche my mother gave me in college, to France of course, to Modernism, to mustaches, to black-and-white portrait photographs, etc. And then, from that neural network, a new connection had to reach all the way over to "6-pack" which linked to...
Beer. In cans. Six of them. Held together with transparent plastic... Oh... and high school...
Need I go on?
Quite a reach. It continues to feel unnatural to me, even now, as if a careless urban planner in a back office somewhere in my brain approved a new overpass, without any concern for the neighborhoods it would draw together.
But what's done is done: a new neural link has been created, whether I like it or not. I suppose the only act of resistence left is to bury it with many more... In other words, to start reading!