How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer Hardcover – October 19, 2010
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From the Publisher
“Serious, engaging, and so infectiously in love with its subject that I found myself racing to finish so I could start rereading the Essays themselves…It is hard to imagine a better introduction—or reintroduction—to Montaigne than Bakewell’s book.” —Lorin Stein, Harper’s Magazine
“Ms. Bakewell’s new book, How to Live, is a biography, but in the form of a delightful conversation across the centuries.” —The New York Times
“So artful is Bakewell’s account of [Montaigne] that even skeptical readers may well come to share her admiration.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Extraordinary…a miracle of complex, revelatory organization, for as Bakewell moves along she provides a brilliant demonstration of the alchemy of historical viewpoint.” —Boston Globe
“Well, How to Live is a superb book, original, engaging, thorough, ambitious, and wise.” —Nick Hornby, in the November/December 2010 issue of The Believer
“In How to Live, an affectionate introduction to the author, Bakewell argues that, far from being a dusty old philosopher, Montaigne has never been more relevant—a 16th-century blogger, as she would have it—and so must be read, quite simply, ‘in order to live’…Bakewell is a wry and intelligent guide.” —The Daily Beast
“Witty, unorthodox…How to Live is a history of ideas told entirely on the ground, never divorced from the people thinking them. It hews close to Montaigne’s own preoccupations, especially his playful uncertainty – Bakewell is a stickler for what we can’t know. …How to Live is a delight…” —The Plain Dealer
“This book will have new readers excited to be acquainted to Montaigne’s life and ideas, and may even stir their curiosity to read more about the ancient Greek philosophers who influenced his writing. How to Live is a great companion to Montaigne’s essays, and even a great stand-alone.” —San Francisco Book Review
“A bright, genial, and generous introduction to the master’s methods.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[Bakewell reveals] one of literature's enduring figures as an idiosyncratic, humane, and surprisingly modern force.” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred)
“As described by Sarah Bakewell in her suavely enlightening How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer Montaigne is, with Walt Whitman, among the most congenial of literary giants, inclined to shrug over the inevitability of human failings and the last man to accuse anyone of self-absorption. His great subject, after all, was himself.” —Laura Miller, Salon.com
“Lively and fascinating . . . How To Live takes its place as the most enjoyable introduction to Montaigne in the English language.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“Splendidly conceived and exquisitely written . . . enormously absorbing.” —Sunday Times
“How to Live will delight and illuminate.” —The Independent
“It is ultimately [Montaigne’s] life-loving vivacity that Bakewell succeeds in communicating to her readers.” —The Observer
“This subtle and surprising book manages the trick of conversing in a frank and friendly manner with its centuries-old literary giant, as with a contemporary, while helpfully placing Montaigne in a historical context. The affection of the author for her subject is palpable and infectious.” —Phillip Lopate, author of The Art of the Personal Essay
“An intellectually lively treatment of a Renaissance giant and his world.” —Saturday Telegraph
“Like recent books on Proust, Joyce, and Austen, How to Live skillfully plucks a life-guide from the incessant flux of Montaigne’s prose . . . A superb, spirited introduction to the master.” —The Guardian
“[How to Live] is written in the form of a delightful conversation across the ages with one of the most appealing, likeable writers who ever lived.” —Independent Mail
"More than just a straightforward biography of Michel de Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell cleverly breaks away from chronology to explore the fundamental questions of living through the philosophy, beliefs, essays and experiences of the French master we often reference as the “father” of “essay.”—Cerise Press
"[A] must-read in its entirety." —Brainpickings
“Bakewell’s writing style is equal parts fluid and fascinating.” —The Flâneur’s Turtle
- Publisher : Other Press; First Edition (October 19, 2010)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 400 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1590514254
- ISBN-13 : 978-1590514252
- Item Weight : 1.4 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.2 x 1.36 x 9.28 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #159,091 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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SB’s biography answers the question, ‘how to live?’ in twenty chapters, each of them keyed to a theme in Montaigne’s work. Hence, chapter 9: “Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others.” The themes, however, do not trump the biography. This is not an endless examination of thematic content with an occasional look at the events in Montaigne’s life. It is a systematic biography held together by thin thematic divisions.
It is also a very learned biography, expanding at length, e.g., on the civil wars of the period, the driving ideologies, weaponry and specific details, both personal and political. It studies, e.g., the manner in which the texts of the Essays have come down to us, (what we would call) the copy texts, the emendations, the condensations, and so on. There is comparatively little on the content of the Essays themselves, ‘comparatively’ being the operative word. We learn a great deal about Montaigne’s classical influences, the nature of his pyrhonnism, the dimensions of his political associations, his personal relationships, his estate, its winemaking, and so on, but the only essay that is discussed at some length is (as one would expect) the longest of the essays, the Apology for Raymond Sebond.
It is sometimes said that the first requirement for a great biography is the author’s love for her subject (balanced, always, by a willingness to speak the truth, wherever its elements might fall). SB clearly admires Montaigne and wishes that today’s thinkers, writers and politicians (Montaigne served in all three capacities) would read him, be inspired by him and take lessons from him.
The writing is crisp and clear, direct and candid. While it is undergirded by a great deal of scholarship that scholarship does not drag the book down and bore the reader with tedious details. It contains a bibliography, index and series of endnotes, sufficient to guide the reader to other texts and explore/verify issues that have come under question.
The book is very much like its subject—a pleasant, human and humane read that takes on difficult subjects with a light touch and details experiences that will find echoes in the reader’s own heart.
The ingenuity of the biography helps explain why critical reception of Bakewell's own book was so positive. But the plain fact is that Bakewell is also a stylish writer, capable of holding our fascinated (and occasionally amused) attention, even when she is discussing the minutiae of successive editions or of obscure editorial quarrels. The book was warmly recommended to me by a friend who said flatly it was the best book he'd read in a year or, indeed, in any recent year. You'll probably find this kind of enthusiasm in many of the Amazon reviews. If you're interested in philosophy or in a charismatic writer and thinker in a long bygone, tumultuous era, and if you care about artful construction and stylish writing, this might be the book for you. It certainly was for me.
P.S., I simultaneously read the Kindle version of the book and listened to the Audible version beautifully read by Davina Porter.
Top reviews from other countries
21st century living has made me uncomfortable with labels so I won't attempt to box Montaigne except to say that I first heard his name placed alongside Shakespeare, who apparently read Montaigne like so many others. Montaigne's essays are all an attempt at self examination, but not towards any ambition of self improvement. Montaigne wanted, according to the greatest of ancient wisdom, to know himself. This might be dismissed as self regarding were it not for the production of his Essays, which were read with such enthusiasm, passion, revulsion, by admirers and 'haters', to use the contemporary jargon. People identified with him, whether they liked what they saw or not, and for some he was almost a religion, such as his editor, Marie de Gournay.
I have struggled with Montaigne's writing, his habit of drifting off topic, sometimes never to regain the purported object of his/our attention. Selected Essays, Complete Essays, Complete Essays with the Latin bits translated as well, all have come and gone, and I am left with Sarah Bakewell's admirable biography, alongside Compagnon's A Summer with Montaigne (subtitle: On the Art of Living Well). The latter is nearly 2/3 shorter, based as it is upon 40 radio clips that each gave a sample of Montaigne's thought on a given topic. As such Compagnon is easier to dip into, but I wonder if I would have read it had I not already read Bakewell's amusing biography? I don't know. What I do know is that I find it easier to read about Montaigne through the writing of others than through any volume of his own, and I begin to wonder if there isn't a pattern here when it comes to French philosophers, that their thought is somehow alien in both expression and to some extent content, and they need to be anglicised via a prism before they can be read/accepted/tolerated. Does something need to get lost in translation? Maybe. But I'm not sure. Perhaps not, as Montaigne might say.
There is always the alternative of Shakespeare's dramatic poetry.
Overall, one must make time to read, as Montaigne did, and one must forgive oneself for getting distracted also. It took me a long time to finish Bakewell's book. I was savouring it, or was I distracted by other writers? Both. As she points out, with 21st century people individualistic to excess, does not Montaigne's "I" just become one amongst an uncountable many? Yes, but the lessons on how to conduct oneself with equanimity, and suspend judgement rather than rush to voice your final answer on any topic, is one many need to learn in an era of unstoppable and often hateful prattle. We should read more and write less, and I suspect Bakewell now a better guide for an English reader of Montaigne's life and thought than Montaigne himself. The translated excerpts by Donald Frame have rather more fluency than the antique character provided for translated excerpts in Compagnon's book. If you simply want the application of Montaigne's wisdom to contemporary life then choose Compagnon. If you want to understand where Montaigne's Essays come from, the context of their production, who his literary heroes were, etc, then you need Bakewell's biography. Both serve as an introduction to Montaigne the essayist and as alternatives (if so desired) to getting lost in the meanderings of his writings. He seems to have gone on adding and adding to them, rather then subtracting or refining, hence there are different editions to confuse matters. Ergo, some effort is needed for the general reader to put his thought into context. Choose the context that suits your needs.
I hope you find my review helpful.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 29, 2019
I hope you find my review helpful.
But there would be something almost perverse about offering the same treatment to the great French essayist Montaigne, given how his own writing looped and spiraled around, dodging the point when you most expected him to face it head-on, exploring tangents that shed new light on the main issue... and so Sarah Bakewell's 'Life', which takes the form of an ultra-literary self-help manual, is the perfect kind of biography for one of history's greatest, most unusual, deep thinkers.
Author of Surviving Schizophrenia, a memoir