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How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer Hardcover – International Edition, February 16, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

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*Starred Review* In a wide-ranging intellectual career, Michel de Montaigne found no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well. By casting her biography of the writer as 20 chapters, each focused on a different answer to the question How to live? Bakewell limns Montaigne’s ceaseless pursuit of this most elusive knowledge. Embedded in the 20 life-knowledge responses, readers will find essential facts—when and where Montaigne was born, how and whom he married, how he became mayor of Bordeaux, how he managed a public life in a time of lethal religious and political passions. But Bakewell keeps the focus on the inner evolution of the acute mind informing Montaigne’s charmingly digressive and tolerantly skeptical essays. Flexible and curious, this was a mind at home contemplating the morality of cannibals, the meaning of his own near-death experience, and the puzzlingly human behavior of animals. And though Montaigne has identified his own personality as his overarching topic, Bakewell marvels at the way Montaigne’s prose has enchanted diverse readers—Hazlitt and Sterne, Woolf and Gide—with their own reflections. Because Montaigne’s capacious mirror still captivates many, this insightful life study will win high praise from both scholars and general readers. --Bryce Christensen --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.


"With this splendidly conceived and exquisitely written double biography - of both Montaigne the man and Montaigne the book - Sarah Bakewell should persuade another generation to fall in love with Montaigne" Sunday Times "How to live is a superb, spirited introduction to the master, and should have its readers rushing straight to the essays themselves" -- Adam Thorpe Guardian "Sarah Bakewell has written a marvellously confident and clear introduction to Montaigne...a rare achievement. Sarah Bakewell deserves congratulations for opening Montaigne to new readers so very appealingly" Evening Standard "Illuminating and humane book... It's rare to come across a biographer who remains so deliciously fond of her subject... How to Live will delight and illuminate" Independent "Bakewell writes with verve. This is an intellectually lively treatment of a Renaissance giant and his world" Daily Telegraph --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 387 pages
  • Publisher: Chatto & Windus (February 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0701178922
  • ISBN-13: 978-0701178925
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (158 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,669,371 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sarah Bakewell was born in Bournemouth on the English south coast in 1963, but spent most of her childhood in Sydney, Australia, after several years travelling the hippy trail through Asia with her parents. Returning to Britain, she studied philosophy at the University of Essex and worked as a curator of early printed books at London's Wellcome Library for ten years before devoting herself to full-time writing in 2002. After a few years living in the Italian countryside, she has returned to urban life in London, where she teaches creative writing at City University, London, and for the Open University.

Her three books are all biographies, but the latest, 'How to Live: a life of Montaigne', is also an exploration of philosophical questions, not least the one posed by its title: How does one live well?

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

219 of 227 people found the following review helpful By J. W. Kennedy on September 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is not so much a biography of Michel de Montaigne as it is a biography of his book ... which is a legitimate approach since Montaigne himself described the Essays as a portrait of himself, a model of the author in text form. So, Ms. Bakewell has given us many facts about Montaigne's life as well as chronicling the fortunes of the Essays during his life as well as the endless revisions and re-interpretations that occurred after his death. The story is told in true Montaignian fashion, out of chronological order and with numerous digressions, with chapter headings that consist of twenty hypothetical answers to the book's central question: "How to live?" Unlike Montaigne, the content of each chapter stays (mostly) relevant to the subject in its heading. The back of the book contains a brief timeline, an index, and a list of notes. (Strangely these numbered notes are not indicated in the text, making them essentially useless; but that may just be an idiosyncrasy of the Uncorrected Proof copy which I read.)

I first discovered Montaigne when I happened upon the Essays in the History section of the bookstore. I knew nothing about him, but the dust-jacket blurb described him as the inventor of the essay, literature's first "modern" writer, an affable gentleman who good-naturedly natters on at length about any topic that catches his fancy (his favorite subject being himself). His mind wanders and his pen follows it wherever it happens to go. I bought the book, expecting nothing more than to be entertained, and was amazed to discover how emotionally uplifting it was. Montaigne apparently did not wish to consider himself a "philosopher" yet that's what he seemed to be. Here's an educated, well-read guy with an agreeable, easygoing manner ..
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114 of 119 people found the following review helpful By Ken C. on November 18, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
You've heard of hybrid cars? Get ready for the hybrid biography. Sarah Bakewell's luminous HOW TO LIVE is just that -- an inspired collision of biography, philosophy, history, rhetoric, and literary criticism, all sprinkled with a dollop of self-help. That's right, Bakewell shows how seamlessly Michel Eyquem de Montaigne can enter the 21st century and offer advice to the harried reader. Montaigne, after all, was anything BUT harried. Calm, cool, collected, stoic. That was our man in France.

Now most readers undertake a biography because they are interested in the subject. I was more intrigued by the critical buzz Bakewell's book garnered in the press. And so it was that I got to know Montaigne, famous author of the ESSAYS, through Bakewell's unique design of 20 chapters all based on the question "How to Live?" with a different answer. They are, in order, "Don't Worry About Death," "Pay Attention," "Be Born" (Editor's Note: Very funny), "Read A Lot, Forget Most of What You Read, and Be Slow-Witted," "Survive Love and Loss," "Use Little Tricks," "Question Everything," "Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop," "Be Convivial: Live With Others," "Wake From the Sleep of Habit," "Live Temperately," "Do Something No One Has Done Before," "Do a Good Job, But Not TOO Good a Job," "Philosophize Only by Accident," "Reflect on Everything; Regret Nothing," "Be Ordinary and Imperfect" (Editor's Note: Easy!), "Give Up Control," and "Let Life Be Its Own Answer." If those topics intrigue you in any way, so will this book.

What did I learn? Of course, as expected, a lot about Montaigne's life as that is the main thread.
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57 of 60 people found the following review helpful By JMB1014 on November 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Sarah Bakewell's book on Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) is worthwhile in large part because Montaigne is not as widely read as he deserves to be; her work may help redress that situation. Wisely, she gives readers to understand that they may see themselves in Montaigne's Essays: She understands the narcissism that pervades our culture. It is fascinating - and rather suggestive - that so many people claim to see themselves in the writings of a thoroughgoing skeptic.

Her theme is "how to live" - a subject on which Montaigne is full of insights, though he never presumes to offer advice. In 20 chapters, Ms. Bakewell explores approaches to life derived from Montaigne, such as "Be ordinary and imperfect," "See the world," "Guard your humanity," "Wake from the sleep of habit," "Let life be its own answer," and perhaps most characteristically for Montaigne, "Question everything." If this smacks of the self-help book, don't be deceived. Montaigne is talking about his life, not yours. If you look in his Essays for tips on living, you will not be alone, though his purpose is to describe, not prescribe.

I will not attempt a discussion of Montaigne's Essays here. They have been well reviewed elsewhere. Suffice it to say that he was a learned and yet highly sympathetic member of the French nobility and man of affairs who gave up his public life and duties to think, read, and write. He is the author of insightful, often delightful, essays on all kinds of things - even cannibals.

Ms. Bakewell is more than a casual student of Montaigne and her lively study is more than just a history of his collection of essays. She offers a clear-eyed though necessarily incomplete view of Montaigne's personality, to the extent it can be made out from this remove.
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