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How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
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Written by Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life is something of a conundrum. The book is at once a piece of literary criticism and a self-help book, and at the same time neither of those. That is, it analyzes the literature and life of Marcel Proust and is structured in the regular "how to" fashion of self-help manuals (with chapter titles such as "How to Suffer Successfully" and "How to Be a Good Friend"), but unlike most contemporary literary criticism it is written for a public audience, and unlike most self-help books, How Proust Can Change Your Life carries only faint strains of didactic, shallow assuredness.

This rare genre—literary criticism for the public—is terrific. While de Botton's book may be a turn-off to those expecting rigorous scholarship and those expecting a Dr. Phil imitation, this genre is needed, and contemporary literary scholars should take de Botton's efforts seriously.

Literary criticism is currently a pinched genre. It is always rigorous, frequently pedantic, and seldom accessible to the public. It is a genre that, for better and worse, stays around mainly because literary critics are required to publish or perish. Literary criticism is in one sense not unlike cookbooks: necessary to have around, unnecessary to have so much of it around.

It follows, then, that literary critics who really want to change the world with their writing would offer to the public new ways of looking at the best literature, as de Botton does in his book. His insights are fresh, humorous and quite compelling. His book is beneficial for the public at large.

Such writing would admittedly not be a project for everyone, and I can see how too much attention to capitalistic markets could soften the expected rigor of literary scholarship, but a host of books in this vein—comic and colloquial and accurate—could collectively bring about a needed change in contemporary readership.

Expanded review/commentary here.
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Finished Reading
August 11, 2009 – Shelved

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Eliza Verhovsek Your opening paragraph for this review is incredible.

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