How Proust Can Change Your Life

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis will know that I have a habit of criticizing American book design. It’s not necessarily intentional, it just so happens that I come across quite a few American designs that I find none too inspiring, especially when compared with British designs for the same book. To show that I am de bonne foi and that I don’t come to this activity with any a prioris, I present today an American design that I have admired for many years.

In 1997, the Anglo-Swiss author and academic Alain de Botton published How Proust Can Change Your Life, a volume of literary criticism and biography on Marcel Proust cleverly packaged as a tongue-in-cheek self-help book. A trade paperback edition was issued by Random House’s Vintage imprint in the US and Canada on 28 April 1998, with a stunning cover (left) designed by Kathleen DiGrado. This edition remains in print and available to this day, although fortunately the ridiculous ‘not a novel’ business that appeared on the covers of the first American editions of this book has since been removed. Included for the purposes of comparison is the current British trade paperback edition (right) issued by Macmillan’s Picador imprint. Although the British edition isn’t necessarily unattractive or badly designed, Kathleen DiGrado’s striking American cover design is simply more attractive and effective. Also, who wants to see a mobile phone on the cover of a book about Proust?


Compare those designs with the designs for the original hardback editions issued in 1997. Here the British Picador edition (left) stands up better, with a strangely compelling portrait of Proust, but I still prefer DiGrado’s cover design, also used for the original American hardback edition (right) issued by Pantheon Books (yet another imprint of Random House).


If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to make a history-of-publishing digression at this point. Pantheon Books was founded in 1942 by Jacques Schiffrin, a Russian-born French Jew who was forced to flee to New York following the Nazi occupation of France. In Paris he had previously founded the publishing venture Pléiade (which has existed since 1934 as a collection within Gallimard) that publishes definitive editions of classic French and foreign texts from around the world in handsome colour-coded, leather-bound gift editions. These are the most prestigious books in the world of French publishing (you’ll find them in locked display cases in bookshops) and the publication of a text in a Pléiade edition confirms its status as an essential classic throughout French-speaking world; the definitive edition of Proust was published in the Pléiade 1987. What I’m getting at here is that the same man, Jacques Schiffrin, long after his death in 1949, was ultimately responsible for both the publication of How Proust Can Change Your Life in the United States, as well as the definitive edition of Proust’s masterwork in France.

Getting back to the matter at hand, we’ll now look at the poche editions of How Proust Can Change Your Life in French translation, including the out of print 1998 edition from Pocket (left) and the 2001 edition from 10/18 (right). As you can see, Pocket used the same design as the original UK hardback edition.


Both Pocket and 10/18 are imprints of Univers Poche, itself a division of Editis which is in turn a subsidiary of the Wendel Investments conglomerate. As an interesting coincidence, this and other instances of media concentration in American and European publishing have been denounced by André Schiffrin in his books The Business of Books, L’édition sans éditeurs and especially in Le contrôle de la parole. André Schiffrin is of course the son of Jacques Schiffrin and himself the longtime director of Pantheon Books before Random House forced him out in 1990.

Finally, we’ll look at the original French trade paperback edition issued in 1997 by Gallimard imprint Denoël, shown below both with and without its partial jacket.


It is a most French of publishing phenomena, this partial jacket. Very often French books, which are essentially always originally issued as trade paperbacks and almost never as hardbacks, will have a partial jacket covering the bottom half or third of the book. This allows the brand identity of the collection to come through while introducing a bit of title-specific originality. They are also used to draw attention to any literary prizes a book may have won. Here, Denoël has used a half jacket to allow the concept from the UK hardback and the brand identity of their Empreinte collection to coexist.


~ by Thomas on 2007-Jun-30.

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