on June 26, 2003
First, while I really love this little book, it doesn't quite deliver on the title. Not that the title isn't accurate. Very few fiction writers can actually change one's life, but Proust is one of a very few that can (reading him has very definitely changed mine), but I'm not quite sure that de Botton gets at the reasons why. At least, he didn't get to the specific reasons that Proust has had that effect on my life.
Nonetheless, this remains an amazingly good introduction to Proust, and is a marvelous first-book for anyone contemplating reading Proust's masterpiece. Proust is, of course, the author of what is very widely considered to be the great work of literature of the past century and what is increasingly considered one of the great masterpieces in the history of literature: IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME. de Botton's volume isn't precisely an introduction to Proust so much as a series of reflections on themes that can be illustrated by aspects of Proust's life or by passages in his great novel. Many of these are marvelous at assisting even a veteran reader of Proust to gain new insights into his book.
Is the book worthwhile for someone who does not plan on reading Proust but just wants to read an enjoyable book? Certainly. de Botton is unfailingly witty, almost always interesting, and frequently insightful. None of this relies either upon having read Proust or intending to. The book can certainly stand on its own. Reading this book is fun and easy; reading Proust can be fun at times, but it is also challenging and demanding frequently. But that may be why de Botton's book is unable to show how Proust truly can change your life. Proust has a way of sucking you deep into his book, making you so much a part of it that you feel almost that it is you and not the narrator from whom all these feelings and emotions arise. You almost become a part of the novel, and your life can change because Proust can create a story that becomes a mirror to your own life, instilling a sense of the things we ought to have done but didn't, but providing the revelation that it isn't too late. Proust can also show how all the failures of the past can become the material for future success and accomplishment. de Botton hints at some of this, and even quotes some key passages that in the context of the novel most eloquently display this (cf. the Elstir speech on p. 67, which I believe displays the central theme of the entire novel better than any other passage in Proust).
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone wishing either a fun read or a light-hearted intro to Proust. But even more I recommend reading Proust. Only in doing that can one actually discover how Proust can change one's life.
on February 9, 2001
I can see where this book might rub some people the wrong way. People with an old fashioned dedication to literature probably won't appreciate Alain de Botton's clever re-contextualizing of Proust within the modern genre of self-help. I might feel similarly if de Botton claimed to be writing a real self-help book or a serious examination of Proust, but he never attempts to perform either feat.
Instead, de Botton accomplishes several things. He parodies self-help books, he undertakes a humorous and highly personal exploration of Proust, and he makes a witty argument about how literature can aid us in our daily lives. The heart of de Botton's message is actually paradoxical. From one perspective he is saying, "don't take literature too seriously" and from another he is saying, "literature is a critical tool in everyone's life".
I believe that all of us essentially reinvent what we read and use it to interpret our lives and the world around us. De Botton simply provides a humorous and intelligent blue print of this natural process.
on October 31, 2003
I read all the time, every day, and this book is fantastic. I've read Proust, but it isn't necessary to have read him to love this book. In fact, this book makes a nice introduction to Proust, and if you wanted to fake having read Proust, this would be an enjoyable way to pick up enough information to do just that :-)
This book is simply one of the loveliest meditations on reading and life, and how they intertwine, that I've ever read. It's not a book for people who don't like to read, but for anyone who DOES like to read, I think it would make a lovely gift. I gave it to myself, and I thanked myself for it very much.
on November 17, 2002
I just finished reading Swann's Way, and was sure that that would be the beginning and the end of my reading of Proust, at least for now. But then I found this book. It's written in a tone half-serious and half-tongue in cheek, and manages to be both reverent to Proust and damning of his "reputation" as difficult, dense, overlong, and too damn philosophical to be entertaining. Its breaking up of Proust's great (and his trivial) themes into easy-to-handle morsels and "morals" is frequently hilarious and always pointed and accurate. (The last sentence in particular made sense to me, having just spent 2 hours struggling to read the last 40 pages of Swann's Way...)
But the greatest praise I can give this book is that, because of it, I am going to buy In a Budding Grove this weekend. Great stuff, highly recommended, especially for those unsure if they wish to read more than one volume of Proust. (It may be a little less appreciated by those who have never read any Proust, but it is still entertaining and may convince you to pick up the book itself.)
on October 24, 2002
A specific theme is explored from a variety of perspectives in many of de Botton's books, including ~Proust~, and that is, how to successfully respond to the vagaries of life. These vagaries and pre-occupations include the pursuit of love, happiness and, most importantly, how to make use of suffering, how to learn from the inevitable pain that this life will bring to some. However, what is it that makes de Botton's advice more palatable than the common spewing from your garden-variety self-help manual? Apart from his user-friendly writing style, it's his approach, his unique way of interpreting great works of philosophy and literature, and re-moulding age-old notions into workable methods of application to the personal and everyday.
The key, I believe, to fully appreciating what this particular text has to offer, is to understand Proust's various responses to the world - what I like to call his inner-worldliness. It is well known, of course, that Proust was not a 'worldly' man in the common sense of the term, but worldly in that vast terrain known as the imagination. In fact, this gentle and fragile writer, most of his short life, rarely stepped out of his bedroom, let alone transverse the expanses of Europe. Proust's gift was the uncanny ability to observe something as apparently mundane as a pocket watch or a scrap of bed linen, and through a mental process of rich association, create new and meaningful experiences. What Proust taught us through his voluminous works, which de Botton points out, is what we all too often take for granted, ironically, has the potential to give us what we need.
~How Proust can Change your Life~ is one of those texts that you can pick up after lunch and finish before dinner, yet the contents and practical wisdom should remain with you for a long time.
on February 18, 2002
I know I'm in the minority,but I simply could not stand this book. In fact, I resisted reading it for many months, but friends finally talked my into it. I wish I had held my ground.
de Botton is certainly right about one thing: Proust can definitely change your life. He's changed mine. I just don't think anyone's life will be changed in the manner in which de Botton suggests.
How Proust Can Change Your Life is meant to amuse, but I found it more than mildly irritating. Had de Botton been a better writer I suppose I would have been amused, or, conversely, had Proust been a lesser writer, I might not have been irritated, but as it is....
Non-Proust fans will probably not understand the gist of this book. Proust fans will be able to correctly second guess de Botton every time. Thus, either way you look at it, the fun is spoiled. It might serve as an introduction to someone who wants to read Proust but finds the genuine article a bit daunting, but I do have my doubts. I think those who enjoy this book haven't read and studied Proust...in depth.
I do have something positive to say...it is obvious that de Botton has read and studied Proust. Why he chose to mock this great author in this manner is simply beyond me. Proust was never meant to be cute and sweet as de Botton attempts to be. And he certainly never meant to degenerate into self-help.
I love Proust. He is one of my alltime favorite authors. Read Proust, by all means, but read the genuine article. You'll come away far, far more enriched.
on November 5, 2001
I will start out by saying I'm somewhat biased towrd the subject matter as proust is one of my favorite writers - 'philosophers' (peut -etre ?). Nontheless, compliments do no justice to this excellent book. It is possible to read it in a weekend, on a beach or in the library, yet the wisdom it contains will last a lifetime. As it examines peculiarites of Proust's life and character, as well as his famous novel "In Search of Lost Time", De Botton distills the contents of the seven volumes to provide valuable advice on friendship, love, money, work and ultimately how to live a better life. Ulike self help books, "How Proust Can Change your Life" does not ask you to make lists of things to do, change your personality or tell you that "if you can see it you can be it". Nor will you find quick solutions to complex issues like personal change and many of the associated buzzwords of most intellectually insulting guides like 'proactive', 'multitask', 'lifestyle' or even 'successful'. It will not tell you how to become rich. It merely asks you to examine and think about your life so that you may understand yourself better. It also shows how paying attention to minor details is the key to appreciating others, ourselves and the world. It is simply an excellent book. Unfortunately, too few will read it, but those few will have a rare privilege.
on April 11, 2001
Marcel Proust, like his fellow modernist icons, Kafka and Joyce, produced a literature which is entirely personal, devoid of the kind of universality which had, up until their time, characterized the Western Canon. If it is a coincidence, it is a revelatory one, that the key moment in Swann's Way, if not in all of In Search of Lost Time, comes with a perversion of the Communion. A bite of madeleine and a sip of tea sends Proust's narrator/Proust reeling back through the years, turns him entirely inwards, and inundates him with personal memories and feelings. During this reverie, Proust's older self essentially communes with his younger self, or selves. Here we have the individual, whole unto himself, needing only his own feelings and memories to find those things which give his life meaning.
This stands thousands of years of the Judeo-Christian tradition on its head. It has been the dream of Western man, and a noble one, that we might rise beyond purely personal concerns and achieve something together as a species, achieve one day a kind of godhood ourselves. In no small part, it is this shared dream, and its requirement of communality, which has led us to create the liberal protestant capitalist democratic institutions which have made possible social progress over the past several centuries. Though these institutions vindicate individual rights, they are focussed on the ways in which men can co-exist and work together. Each in its own way is premised on the Golden Rule : Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Each of us, as individuals, will reap the benefit of the general adherence to this stricture, but it is primarily concerned with how we behave towards others. Similarly, during the Communion we turn not inwards but outwards, remembering the sacrifice that Christ made, taking our sinfulness upon himself, that we might approach closer to God.
It is unsurprising then that the 20th Century, with Proust (and Darwin and Nietzsche and Freud and Marx and Joyce) leading the intellectual way, saw the near collapse of Judeo-Christian tradition and Western institutions and a descent into barbarism, as people acted out the ideas of the vanguard, with every man seeking only his own self interest. What is surprising is that so many chose to listen to the utter blather of such men. And none of those men, bizarre as they generally were, made a more unlikely prophet than Proust.
A truly curious conceit animates the cult of Proust, the belief that the very characteristics which made Marcel Proust so completely aberrant, also made him uniquely perceptive about the human condition. Here's how de Botton puts it :
The magnitude of Proust's misfortunes should not be allowed to cast doubt on the validity of his ideas.
Though philosophers have traditionally been concerned with the pursuit of happiness, far greater wisdom would seem to lie in pursuing ways to be properly and productively unhappy. The stubborn recurrence of misery means that the development of a workable approach to it must surely outstrip the value of any utopian quest for happiness. Proust, a veteran of grief, knew as much.
Meanwhile, here's as good a one sentence description of Proust as I could find :
A mother's boy who never really grew up, a part-genuine, part-imaginary invalid totally incapable of looking after himself, a reluctant homosexual who may never have known genuine fulfillment, he spent his early manhood in Parisian high society and then retired, hermit-like, to his famous cork-lined room, where he turned day into night and night into day. -John Weightman, Books Unlimited review of How Proust Can Change Your Life
Okay, so that would make him a gay, hypochondriacal, mama-loving, French, recluse. And it necessarily raises the question : what does someone who was little more than a bundle of neuroses--someone who seemingly incorporated most of the pathologies of a 20th Century which we generally consider to have been a blood soaked disaster--have to tell us about life in general ?
Alain de Botton believes Proust has quite a bit to tell us, and he tries mightily to make Proust seem pertinent to our lives. In effect, de Botton reads In Search of Lost Time as a huge self help manual. This is often very funny, and is presumably intended to be ironic, but is ultimately unconvincing. The many stories he tells about Proust and about contemporary reaction to his writing are quite amusing, but he can never quite get us convincingly past that first big hurdle : Proust was simply too screwed up for us to accept that he has much to say to us. Having successfully turned inward himself, he found nothing but himself, and an unpleasant self at that. The resulting fiction is necessarily idiosyncratic and personal, rather than universal. In the end, all Proust really had to say was what it was like to be Proust, which does not seem to have been a particularly enjoyable experience. Combine that with the fact that he said it in the most stultifyingly boring fashion and at interminable length and there's just no compelling reason to read him.
Each chapter of de Botton's book is based on something he maintains Proust can teach us, and the final chapter is called "How to Put Books Down." One has to assume that this is intentionally humorous on de Botton's part, because there may be no other author who has forced as many readers to put his book's down as Proust. They are truly unreadable, as the comments of even his friends and family acknowledge. If, like me, you feel some obligation to at least familiarize yourself with Proust's work, do yourself a huge favor and read How Proust Can Change Your Life instead of the original novels. Despite its ostensible intent, it will cure you of any desire to pick up a Proustian tome in the first place.
GRADE : B+
on September 21, 2000
Alain de Botton has done what many may believe to be impossible-- he has found a lucrative use for philosophy. Okay, maybe he isn't the first one, but he certainly has done a good job of it. His style of prose is addictive-- de Botton is witty and light while still maintaining a level of profundity and intellect. The book certainly does not read like an academic monologue, but one comes away from it with something of the feeling of having partaken in something intellectual and educational. In addition, the pictures and drawings that pepper the pages will often make you smile. I came to it without previous knowledge of Proust; nevertheless I was able to appreciate it quite a bit. (At times I longed for footnotes so that I could pursue a deeper study of Proust, but it isn't that sort of book). Beginning with "How to love life today" and ending with "How to put books down," de Botton does an excellent job of relating the work of Proust to our everyday lives. De Botton has an instinct for understanding human behavior and enjoys deconstructing it with the tools of philosophy. Read it and enjoy; reflect on the content, and it might well do some good.
on August 13, 2000
This book deserves all the praise it has received. It does something I've never been able to do when talking to friends: it articulates the value of reading and studying literature. You don't have to have read IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME to enjoy this book. In fact, de Botton could probably have subsituted Joyce, Faulkner, or Woolf for Proust and produced a similar study. The self-help format seems appropriate (even if sardonically intended). De Botton seems to be directly addressing (and at times challenging) the earnestness of people who turn to books to improve themselves (and who expect books to show them the best way to improve those around them). My favorite chapters were "How to Suffer Successfully" and "How to Be a Good Friend." The final chapter, "How to Put Down Books," should probably be photocopied and stapled to the door of every library and bookstore. I cautions us against bibliolatry.
One tiny gripe. De Botton does not always identify the works he is quoting from. We don't need to know specific page numbers, but it would be nice to know if a quotation is from one of the volumes of IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, or from an essay or letter. In one case, I wasn't sure if the quote was Proust's or Ruskin's.