Customer Reviews: How Proust Can Change Your Life
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on April 24, 2000
I have tackled only "Swann's Way" from the seven volumes of Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," formerly translated as "Remembrance of Things Past." You need not have read Proust to thoroughly enjoy this concise 197-page book in nine chapters. When you finish it, however, you will be seriously contemplating having a go at Proust's masterpiece in its entirety.
Consider the chapter titles. The fourth is "How to Suffer Successfully." The seventh is "How to Open Your Eyes." The eighth is "How to be Happy in Love." The last, and my favorite, is "How to Put Books Down." The author draws on the ideas and characters found in Proust's masterpiece and renders Proust's response to these issues. All of this is very wittily done. The whole thing is leavened with fascinating biographical tidbits concerning this strange, brilliant man, Marcel Proust. In that last chapter Mr. de Botton (apparently a Brit) presents us with Proust's view of books and their proper place in life:
"It is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books (which allows us to see the role at once essential yet limited that reading may play in our spiritual lives) that for the author they may be called "Conclusions" but for the reader "Incitements." We feel very strongly that our own wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off, and we would like him to provide us with answers when all he is able to do is provide us with desires . . . . That is the value of reading, and also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it."
On the other hand should we expect any lesser eloquence from a man who on a different subject said this:
"People who are not in love fail to understand how an intelligent man can suffer because of a very ordinary woman. This is like being surprised that anyone should be stricken with cholera because of a creature so insignificant as the comma bacillus."
I loved this book. It was indeed a tonic, and I think you might find it so, too.
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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.
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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.
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on March 16, 2000
This book has been ludicrously dismissed as 'facile' by sniffy snobs. The dismaying fact remains that in this age of overcrowding media vying for our attention, you have to be pretty convincing to make people want to give a large chunk of their lives to a 4000 page novel about sponge cakes, silly aristocrats and sickly fops.
De Botton manages this with ease. His book is an excellent precis of Proustian concerns - time, love, friendship, literature - told in deceptively simple language masking thoroughness and complexity. His aren't the last words on these subjects, they are starting points which allow the virgin reader a map when starting on the vast terrain of A La Recherche.
His own prose is elegant, suggestive and sometimes very funny, while his emphasis on the personal is at the same time endearing, a way into the book, and true to Proust. He fills in his narrative with much biographical, historical and anecdotal matter, drawing on letters, newspapers, memoires, which are both illuminating and entertaining.
His own method is seemingly the opposite of Proust's, immediately lucid and precise, but the form of his book follows the Proustian pattern, whereby the book heading in one direction turns in on itself, becomes a book about itself, its own creation, even negating itself as it tells us to abandon Proust if we want to be true to the spirit of Proust.
The book isn't perfect - sometimes the prose is a little TOO easy; both Proust and De Botton come across as near-saintly figures, full of understanding and kindness, when the truth (with Proust at any rate) is much messier; and the last two chapters are a little rushed. But few books outside the thriller genre have delighted me and kept me reading feverishly to the end like this little trinket.
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on October 13, 2005
Alain de Botton's slim volume contains a reasonably good argument for making the considerable investment of time and energy required to read In Search of Lost Time. I don't recall the author promising that reading his book will change one's life, or that reading Proust's work will necessarily be a life-changing experience--only that it might turn out that way.

I was given a dog-eared copy of How Proust Can Change Your Life by a friend whom I'd told I was considering giving Proust a go. I read maybe half of it, found it amusing, and found the portrayal of Proust amusing as well. The book seemed to fizzle out after that, but what I'd read was enough to get me started on Swann's Way. I had not expected Proust to be comical in any way, but I credit Alain de Botton for illuminating Proust's self-deprecating sense of humor. Had it not been for that, I might never have made it past the famous and seemingly interminable description of juvenile insomnia that opens Swann's Way, much less enjoyed it.

Five years later, I have just finished The Captive and plan to begin The Fugitive within the next month or so. Has Proust changed my life? Well, yes. His work has attuned me to the importance of paying attention, resisting the dulling effects of habit, slowing down, finding meaning in the ordinary rhythms of life, accepting the painful inevitabilities of existence, laughing at my own foibles. There's more, but I won't bore you with it.

Proust is not everyone's cup of tea. But he might be yours. And if he is, you're in for what can, in fact, be a life-changing experience. (At the rate I'm reading him, it could also be a lifelong experience.) You may not be happier, handsomer, thinner, richer, or smarter, but you just might have a better understanding of why being who, what, and where you are is worthy of your attention.

If you're thinking about diving into Proust and not sure that it will be worth the effort, I'd recommend spending a few bucks on this primer first. If it inspires you to move on to the real thing, that's great. If it doesn't, you will have saved yourself hundreds of hours of what could be, for some, utter tedium. And if happiness, beauty, and wealth are what you really want, and you want them now, there's always Dr. Phil.
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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.
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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.
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on January 15, 2000
Looking at the reviews of this book, you wonder whether people are talking about the same book. Some call it excellent, others a complete load of nonsense. I can see why people might complain. They might say that you need to read Proust and not read a guide on Proust. But that misses out what this book is really about. It's not attempting to be a "guide"; It's certainly not attempting to replace Proust. It's just looking at a certain side of Proust's thought; what one might call his therapeutic side, and tracing it very skillfully through the letters and the biography and the novel. It reads unbelievably clearly - and so, if one's feeling ungenerous, it might be accused of being "simplistic," but that's naive. This kind of clarity and lucidity requires an enormous effort and huge talent. Alain de Botton's work is uneven. The Romantic Movement didn't really work, Kiss & Tell was Ok but only OK, but he triumphed in two books; On Love and now this title. I can only urge serious readers to take a look at this book. This is a book that matters. It's going to go down in history as one of the finest, most intelligent pieces of literary criticism of the 20th century.
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on October 8, 2006
My 2006 reading project was to get through Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time and De Botton's book was a great help at the end.

I love Proust's long meandering dreamy sentences describing the things and people the narrator encounters, but I tend to tune out when Proust explains his theories on how memory works, on how we should appreciate a work of art, of how we should read a book, etc.

De Botton concentrates precisely on the parts of Proust I find most tedious, and in his short book he gives us a sampling of Proust's philosophical approach to life. What's more, De Botton takes pertinent passages in ISoLT and contrasts them with how Proust actually lived his own life. Sometimes Proust writes one way but lives a different way; for example he was a great friend, generous and attentive, but he writes that friendship is a waste of time. Which is his true opinion? Probably not that friendship is a waste of time... But the point is that De Botton breathed life into parts of Proust I previously dismissed, including the last hundred pages where the narrator finally experiences the "how and why" of his life.

I'm always a little suspicious of self-help books. Too often they're written by quacks and sometimes the advice they give can be dangerous. I'm also always open to good advice and De Botton showed to my surprise that Proust is full of genuinely helpful hints on how to live better. I bought How Proust Can Change Your Life because I was interested in Proust not because I wanted to change my life; the helpful hints are a fringe benefit.

Vincent Poirier, Tokyo
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on August 13, 2006
Alain de Botton offers a charming overview of Proust's achievement with so light a touch that it cancels out all the usual criticisms of this fascinating writer as boring and tendentious. Which of us have the time to wade through seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past? No problem: De Botton gives us a rundown on the oeuvre by isolating themes within the work, employing a framework of gentle mockery of the self-help genre - the temptation to turn to a great author in the hopes that he can provide us with a roadmap on how to live our lives. In the process he includes enough commentary and quotation to richly illuminate the extraordinary depth of insight and no-nonsense common sense running as a fine vein beneath the musings of this nineteenth-century provincial invalid, nowadays largely relegated to the ranks of the effete and irrelevantby those who have done no more than dipped into him. De Botton's achievement is to remind us of the unique dimensions of Proust's profound understanding of the art of living, even as he gently moves us away from the temptation to idolize the writer. De Botton concludes his book with the insight that "a genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not look at his world through our eyes;" adding this final dictum from Proust himself: "Reading is on the threshold of the spriritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it." The final sentence of De Botton's volume sums up the conclusions of his own study: "Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside" - words which offer the purest homage to the essence of Proust. Enjoy!
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