This is the original Pilates (or Contrology) "manual". In succint (if not always fluid) text, Joseph Pilates outlines the intentions of the legendary exercise system he designed as well as how each exercise should be performed.
This is a simple, short manual. It's surprising that a system that has ended up being shrouded in so many mysteries and rules, particularly by those who are in his direct "lineage", started out relatively humbly. Many, many Pilates instructors will tell you that if you can't take a class in Pilates (and usually in an expensive studio), you're probably doing it wrong (and then maybe it's not worth doing). Also, many instructors have argued that most people aren't ready to do the matwork and that they should almost always begin with sessions on the equipment (again, under the watchful and expensive eye of an instructor). Pilates, however, writes that his system should help you "Return to Life" at a minimum of cost and time. The tone of his writing is inclusive- his system should be readily available to everyone. While he does insist that the instructions he sets out should be followed and that one shouldn't move on until all previous exercises are mastered, I'm not sure that the man who wrote this book in 1945 would approve of the elitist tone that some of his modern-day disciples have adopted.
It's interesting to note some of the exercises that are not included in the book. For example, the five-part Stomach Series is one of the most famous sequences in the modern Pilates matwork. Here, however, Pilates only includes the first two exercises (the One Leg Stretch and the Double Leg Stretch). Also, the matwork system is also well-known for the Side Kick Series. Here, Pilates only includes the Side Kick- none of the other now-common five, six, seven, etc. variations. Were these not included because they hadn't been invented yet or because they were deemed too difficult? Not sure, but he does include the more difficult variations for exercises like the Corkscrew.
The instructions for each exercise are simple and (for the most part) easy to understand. That said, it is easy to understand why many Pilates instructors could get overly wordy on some of the movements. Many of the exercises he demonstrates put a lot of pressure on the neck. I wouldn't necessarily advise that this be the only Pilates reference or manual someone uses to learn the movements.
In addition to the instructions for the Contrology matwork, Pilates also shares his thoughts on the importance of proper diet, sleep and relaxation. After reading this twice, I would say that his primary concern was a lack of good circulation. He explains that his system was designed to promote just that (and that's part of the reason almost none of the movements are done standing), and he even has suggestions for the proper way to clean the body such that the skin can breathe (answer: dry-brushing).
While some of Pilates writing style may be off-putting to modern readers, he comes across as a man who would like to make the world a better place, one body at a time. If perhaps a little too strident at times, his motivation seems both benevolent and sincere.