August 10, 2012

Book Reboot: "The Official Preppy Handbook" And Its Reboot "True Prep"

Two years ago was the 30th anniversary of a book that became something of an accidental bestseller known as "The Official Preppy Handbook" (it was published in 1980) by Lisa Birnbach.  The book was written pretty much as a tongue-in-cheek look at the WASP establishment, but the author wasn't really part of that establishment, as a Jewish Girl who happened to attend an elite prep school and later, the Ivy League Brown University.  She probably had access to the elite WASP establishment, but she was also something of an outsider looking in which made the book so entertaining (I think I can say that having grown up in Connecticut with family surnames of Wilkinson, Bradford and Stone and a family affiliation with a prep school known as The Gunnery).  Her educational background probably helped her as a then-aspiring author to gain access to the publishing industry, and the publisher was pleasantly surprised with the great sales numbers for the original "Official Preppy Handbook".  Still, the original book was a very entertaining look which combined some facts with some fiction.

It was a runaway success in 1980, but the book's actual buyers weren't exactly whom the publisher (or the author) anticipated they would be.  Mostly, the buyers were kids in flyover country that envisioned themselves as part of that elite world.
In any event, the reboot, whose preparation was chronicled by such "establishments" as The New York Times (see for the news on the reboot, and for the subsequent book review) and even included a co-author with a preppy-sounding name (Chip Kidd), but was not necessarily the runaway success of the original.  Apparently, its initial first-print run was reduced from from 150,000 copies to a more modest number of 60,000.  That's not to say the publisher lost money on it (it did get published after all) but the publishing industry really isn't what it was back in 1980, and success may be defined differently today based on sales numbers.  The reboot really wasn't as funny as the original, and that may be why it didn't work as well.

Some blog critics were less than kind (see HERE for an example) to the reboot, and I hate to admit it, but I have to agree, as I think they were mostly correct.  For example, Robert Lanham wrote:

"... the book's smugly discreet tone is precisely what is most exasperating about True Prep. Let's face it, most Americans are too busy trying to make ends meet to discuss with "loving irreverence" those dandily-dressed hedge-funders. And should the topic be broached, the last thing they're looking for is a little old fashioned discretion."

Having read both versions of the book (although my original copy of the now out-of-print "Official Preppy Handbook" was lost or tossed long ago), I can say the new book "True Prep" was probably done with very good intentions (although Lisa Birnbach probably did little more than give her name to the venture as a ghostwriter to Chip Kidd, who was probably responsible for most of the content for the reboot, though she was a great person to promote the book as some of the videos that follow seem to indicate, and I can say the book definitely looks familiar to the original in format, design and tone) but "True Prep" just didn't amuse me the way the original "Official Preppy Handbook" did in 1980.

As an FYI, Lisa Birnbach has an "official" blog which can be visited at  It seems to be primarily a vehicle for promoting the reboot book "True Prep".

Official "True Prep" Video

ABC News Nightline Covers "True Prep" (Humorously)

Sometimes, things weren't meant to be rebooted (such as the 2007 reboot of the seventies TV show "The Bionic Woman" which I really hated) and in this case, I can say that probably applies to the "True Prep" reboot of the 1980 original "Official Preppy Handbook".  The original was cute, but the reboot is probably lacking in some of the bite that the original had, hence the reboot really didn't work as well as the original did.  Indeed, the reboot paints a picture of 2010 as a much more-inclusive world of prepdom, but the fact remains that while the world may have changed since 1980, that doesn't mean the sequel can approach the fun of the original in this case.

If you want to evaluate the reboot for yourself, the good news is that it can be found in many places, including on iTunes, Google Play/Android Marketplace and, of course, traditional booksellers including and Barnes & Noble.  As an added benefit, the book is sold in both print and electronic versions.

Or, better yet, see if it's available at your public library!

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