- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Other Press; Reprint edition (September 20, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1590514831
- ISBN-13: 978-1590514832
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (182 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #7,803 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer Paperback – September 20, 2011
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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 the Audio CD edition.
“This charming biography shuffles incidents from Montaigne’s life and essays into twenty thematic chapters…Bakewell clearly relishes the anthropological anecdotes that enliven Montaigne’s work, but she handles equally well both his philosophical influences and the readers and interpreters who have guided the reception of the essays.” —The New Yorker
“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
Top Customer Reviews
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. The bonuses for me were things like short but essential lessons in philosophies that influenced Montaigne (Stoics, Epicureans, Skeptics) and in personalities that he in turn influenced or outraged (Pascal, Rousseau, Voltaire, Nietzsche, etc.). Also, there was the history lesson on 16th-century France's religious wars (Catholics v. Protestants). Bloody good. And then there were all the snippets from Montaigne's essays themselves. Some readers may want to read more by tackling the behemoth ESSAYS after this book. Others may feel that this sampler is sufficient unto itself -- after all, you come out more knowledgeable about the man, his approach toward life, his writing style, and even his translators.
Overall, it's an unusually refreshing run at what should have been staidly-boring material. Bakewell's theme is that Montaigne is more interesting and timeless than you think. Her hybrid biography proves the point by meeting the same criteria. If you have any interest in the past, essay-writing, philosophy, religion, politics, and the common man as championed by a most unusual man, HOW TO LIVE is your book.
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. She also spends substantial time on Montaigne's experiences with death, for instance, and this may be valuable to modern readers, many of whom, I suspect, would just as soon avoid that subject altogether. Ms. Bakewell brushes in some of the intellectual, historical, religious, and political background and context with which Montaigne was familiar, as by commenting on Stoicism, Epicureanism and Skepticism, e.g. The reader thereby gets a better understanding of the skeptical tradition to which Montaigne was a major contributor. Finally, there are numerous useful and interesting illustrations, even if they are not generally of the best quality. There's even a picture of a bottle of wine made at the estates near Bordeaux over which Montaigne presided. Oenophiles will note the connection between Chateau d' Yquem, where a spectacular sweet wine is made, and a branch of Montaigne's family from which one of his names originated: Eyquem.
I had hoped for a more substantial discussion of Montaigne's longest and perhaps most important essay, "A Defense of Raymond Sebond," also called "An Apology for Raymond Sebond." It is a somewhat confusing piece for a lay reader to confront. Ms. Bakewell gives it short shrift. And although she relies exclusively on the Frame translation, which is excellent, as long as she was preparing a book on Montaigne for the modern reader, she might have commented on other translations, such as the Screech translation, to give us an idea of their respective strengths and weaknesses. (N.B: I find that Gore Vidal wrote an excellent essay on Montaigne and briefly compared the Frame and Screech translations. The essay was originally published in the Times Literary Supplement of June 26, 1992. It has been reprinted in The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, Jay Parini, Ed., Vintage paperback 2009.)
I do disagree with another reviewer's somewhat breezy conclusion that Montaigne is "scatter-brained." Montaigne was one of the first exponents of the so-called stream of consciousness and of course part of what makes him so engaging is following that stream around bends, over rapids and through deep pools. Montaigne would scarcely be considered the father of the essay, let alone one of the great writers of the western tradition, if he were merely scatter-brained. Much more recent writers, notably Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, made use of the stream of consciousness. They are not normally accused of being scatter-brained.
Incidentally, it is becoming more common for scholars who want to appeal to a broad audience to put notes at the end of the book, listed by page number, without printing the corresponding numbers in the text. I do not agree that the notes are therefore useless. This practice simultaneously meets the needs of students and scholars, who want the notes, and of general readers who hate being distracted by them. William Lee Miller, a distinguished historian at the University of Virginia, handles his notes in the same way in his excellent study of Lincoln, "President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman."
Montaigne is said (p.66) to have liked biographers "who went beyond the external events of a life and tried to reconstruct a person's inner world from the evidence." If he were alive today, I think he would be quite pleased with his new biographer, Sarah Bakewell.
Ms. Bakewell's unconventional but elegant work, "How To Live: A Life of Montaigne" should be bought, read, and kept for one's library.