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Life: A User's Manual

4.8 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0099449256
ISBN-10: 0099449250
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Though Perec (1936-1982) is "experimental" in the tradition of Joyce and Nabokov, his work is rich with word games and acrostics that reveal the secret life of language this euphoric novel, winner of the Prix Medicis, will enchant a range of readers. The serial storytelling within the framework narrative is as beguiling and inexhaustible as Scheherazade's. The facade is removed from a Parisian apartment house on the Rue Simon-Crubellier, permitting us to spy on its tenants in the grid of rooms and to examine their pictures and bibelots. Books, letters, clippings and announcements add to the textual welter, all interlocking like pieces of a puzzle, the novel's chief metaphor. Tales told in stylishly reinvented genres, romance, detection, adventure, constitute what is experienced, read about or dreamed up by an array of restaurateurs, mediums, cyclists, antique dealers and pious widows. A quester for the Nile tries to rescue a beautiful German girl from a harem. A judge's wife, whose sexually thrilling thefts result in a sentence of hard labor, ends as a bag lady on a park bench. Meanwhile a team of eccentric artists, Bartlebooth, Winckler and Valene, enact the creative process, painting watercolor seascapes, cutting them apart with a jigsaw and reassembling them as smoothly as "an oily sea closing over a drowning man." The image of a splendidly wrought table, its interior fretted by patient worms, succinctly and differently restates the process. This is a classic of contemporary fiction.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

"The eye follows the paths that have been laid down for it in the work," begins Perec's encyclopedic novel, which details everything, animate and inamimate, in an imaginary apartment house. His characters unfailingly do the least expected: Laurelle, killed at her own wedding by a falling chandelier; Ingeborn, who casts a white actor as Otello; Gregoire, fired from a vegetarian restaurant for pouring beef extract in the vegetable soup; a judge's wife sentenced to hard labor. The author reserves the greatest irony for Percival Bartlebooth, like himself an artist. Bartlebooth paints watercolors that are made into jigsaw puzzles, then reverses the process until he has a perfectly blank sheet. Creation and dissolution are the themes in this highly entertaining work, itself a puzzle. Lisa Mullenneaux, Iowa City, Iowa
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books USA (April 3, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099449250
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099449256
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,001,074 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
If you read the first few pages of this book after seeing all the glowing reviews on Amazon, you may wonder what we are so excited about. However, you will be rewarded if you persevere. In an ice-cold literary voice, Perec systematically describes the inhabitants and contents of a Paris apartment building. His style is at first totally uninvolving, yet somehow, amazingly, his monotonous descriptions come together like the tiles of a mosaic (or, to use Perec's image, the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle) to create a living, exciting picture. Even if you know nothing about the philosophical and aesthetic theories that gave this book its structure, you will find it enthralling.
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Format: Paperback
Perec would properly be regarded as an experimentalist and this novel, like his others, was written under self-imposed constraints.
The novel takes as its plan a block of flats in a Parisian suburb, a 10 x 10 grid, over which the narrator must proceed by way of the moves of the Knight in chess, never landing on the same flat twice(this, like other formalities, were allowed to be bent but let's not get too complicated...) with a whole system for information, knowledge and learning to be allocated to each chapter.
'So far, so what' might be the natural response to this were it not for the majesty of the finished novel.
Read in translation the writing is formal yet intimate and seems to proceed at its own leisurely pace as it moves through the block of flats, through life. Numerous 'Tales' are recounted as the novel progresses, each rich in feeling and poignancy though sometimes disturbing, the key of which, indeed the key to the novel, is 'The Tale of the Man who painted watercolours and had puzzles made out of them'. To go into detail would spoil the effect for other readers but this is about life, about a plan for life and ultimately a metaphor for life. And the making of this book.
I have to confess to a love for French literature generally. It seems possible to trace an organic progression and tradition (the blanket phrase that readily comes to mind is 'intellectual pessimism'...)through its history which is then disrupted every once in a while by an individual who rebels against that tradition (Rimbaud) or subverts it (Mallarme or Aragon). Perec, arguably, both is and is not of this tradition.
He is however, in the wider tradition of great literature. And seems to recognise this. 'Life...
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Format: Paperback
Although this is certainly an experimental novel, it is absolutely readable and fun. The layout is supposed to be taken from chess, with a knight jumping up on some squares which represent the appartments on the building map. Frankly, although ingenious, the scheme is not all that important to me. What truly fascinated me were the stories themselves, the full development of characters, situations, histories and sceneries. In every chapter, Perec gives us an introduction about how the appartment / room looks like. The descriptions may be long sometimes, but they are essential to the whole point of the book: to bring to life real people living in comprehensible, complete surroundings, and to make these easy to visualize. Some of the descriptions, in particular Mme. Moreau's dining room, are simply beautiful and innovative.

The book was completed in 1978 and the action of the stories ranges from mid-XIX Century until June 23, 1975. The final chapter, which gives us a photograph of what each inhabitant is doing at that precise moment (8 pm), is also very beautiful and moving. The book projects a humanity so rich and vivid, hard to find in most fiction. The stories intertwine while being totally independent, and the cast of characters is wide-ranging and believable even in the most outrageous ones.

The central story, which forms the backbone of the book, is about a rich young man, Bartlebooth, a typically eccentric Englishman who decides to devote his life to a single, useless, morally neutral and highly aesthetical project: along with his faithful servant Smautf, he will visit 500 seaports to paint acquarelles of them, and every 15 days he will send the pictures to Winckler, an artisan also residing in the building.
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Format: Paperback
Of course Perec’s masterpiece needs no further praise, but I thought I might write a “letter of welcome” for anyone approaching the book for the first time, for those who are curious and perhaps wary. It is, after all, hundreds of pages of fine print. The labels “experimental” and “postmodern” can be off-putting, as they have often been applied to work that is portentous or opaque or overly self-involved. How could a book with a title like “LIFE A User’s Manual” not be a little intimidating? Anyway, that is how I felt. This note is for others who might feel the same way.

Several people I respect very much loved this book, and it sounded like the sort of thing that I would like, so I sat down to it with high expectations, read thirty pages and said, “Huh?” It seemed so dry -- twenty percent story, twenty percent goofball theory, sixty percent catalog. Dry as dust, I thought. Just wasn’t making it into my head.

Assuming this to be simply my problem, I started again from page one, and the second time was a little better, though I wasn’t really hooked until Chapter Thirteen and the story of the acrobat who refused to come down. From then on I read in a slow and patient rapture, like a man unexpectedly caught in an ecstatic trance while cruising the subterranean stacks of a library.

In other words, be a little patient with Perec and with yourself. This is a book unlike any other and it may take a little while to get the hang of reading it. If all else fails: proceed directly to Chapter Thirteen!

I found that it helped a great deal to take notes. I got myself a little notebook and filled it with the names of characters, vocabulary I didn’t know, bizarre theories as well as sentences I loved and copied out.
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