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How to live, or A life of Montaigne in one…

How to live, or A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at… (2010)

by Sarah Bakewell

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981468,791 (4.15)65
Recently added byajkessler, electrice, steve.lane, cherobula, private library, eastlake_uk, SilentInAWay, sumilou2
  1. 00
    The Poet's Tale: Chaucer and the year that made The Canterbury Tales by Paul Strohm (dajashby)
    dajashby: A similar technique of using biography to shed light on the subject's literature.
  2. 00
    Instead of a Letter: A Memoir by Diana Athill (wandering_star)
    wandering_star: Other memoirs by Athill also recommended - as she puts into practice the honest self-examination as recommended by Montaigne and Bakewell.

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Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
Giving a rating to this book says more about my taste (and expectations) than the quality of Sarah Bakewell's writing. It is a well researched and structured life of the C16th founder of the personal essay discipline; the author has built a deep and much cared-for picture of her subject, resulting in a somewhat academic tone. Yet for all the work, insight - and even the promise of its cover design - there's an absence of the humour and fluidity in Montaigne's work, best caught in his "I do not portray being; I portray passing." The categorization on the cover says Biography/Philosophy; 'How to Live' is first class in the former, rather missing the playful tone I was looking in the latter. ( )
  Parthurbook | Oct 16, 2015 |
Michel de Montaigne: Definitely on my list of famous-people-I’d-like-to-have-dinner-with.

I was surprised to learn that Montaigne started writing pretty late in life—not until after he’d reach the ripe old age of 39—completing 107 essays before his death at the end of the 16th century. I first encountered Montaigne’s Essays as a freshman in college. I rarely remember the loftier chapters from him; mostly what I do remember are those lessons on the profoundly basic stuff. Collectively, these jottings coalesced into this matter of fact ethical prescription for living.

I also remember his writing—it had style, it felt far beyond its time. What sets Montaigne apart from other memoirists of his day was how he didn’t drone on about accomplishments. He didn't bray with authority. His work seems like it could be the precursor of the style of essay writing you see today—self-indulgently navel-gazing and personal, while at the same time contemplative and universal. It made Montaigne so ... flawed, funny, deep. He was thoroughly modern and even timeless in that respect.

Sarah Bakewell in How to Live explores how and why Montaigne’s writing has withstood judgment so merrily and endured so much cultural and social transformation and change over the centuries. He has that special skill to seem like he is speaking directly to you.

"Readers approach him from their private perspectives, contributing their own experience of life. … The Essays is thus much more than a book. It is a centuries-long conversation between Montaigne and all those who have got to know him: a conversation which changes through history, while starting out afresh almost every time with that cry of “How did he know all that about me?” Mostly it remains a two-person encounter between writer and reader. But sidelong chat goes on among the readers too; consciously or not, each generation approaches Montaigne with expectations derived from its contemporaries and predecessors. As the story goes on, the scene becomes more crowded. It turns from a private dinner party to a great lively banquet, with Montaigne as an unwitting master of ceremonies."

Bakewell extracts twenty-one lessons to ponder, weaving a nonlinear biographical history of Montaigne into the core ideas of his collective work. The idea that a pretty ho-hum life could be so inspiring—makes for surprisingly fascinating reading.

M. basically asks ’what is it to be human?’ without asking it outright in a way that would have been pedantic and stiff. He was a student of life, but not in some cold, scientific way but as one who’s simply writing a blog. He’s constantly watching people, colleagues and neighbors, even the animals—his cat, most memorably. He is the patron saint of bloggers and cultural curation. He would have made an amazing podcast guest or documentary filmmaker. He explored things as banal as feelings: What was it like to be pissed off or excited or ashamed? Or to have an out of body experience? To feel bored and lazy? To be completely anxious and accepting of one’s faults and shortcomings?

Ultimately, what Bakewell does so well in this book is honing in on Montaigne’s ability to illuminate the ordinary life:

"I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff. Indeed, that is just what a common and private life is: a life of the richest stuff imaginable."

How to Live is filled with tidbits of wisdom, the kind based on a conviction and faith in human nature, of who we really are. ( )
  gendeg | Aug 15, 2015 |
Amazing book. Maybe the best book I have ever read, perhaps because I am of an age to be thinking about my life and how to live, how I have lived. Spending some time with Montaigne's mind, and perhaps also Ms. Bakewell's, was a stimulating, intimate, comfortable affair. My father taught Intellectual History and that has always been an interest, but in this book I found the sense of philosophizing that is connected to daily living, to living in the world around you, to living with real people, to facing all the myriad troubles of daily life to be so refreshing. I sometimes despair of our world today and the chapters on the civil wars of Montaigne's times reminded me that even now we do have a corner on barbarity or stupidity--it is always the stuff of life.

For some reason Montaigne made me want to read (some rereading) Shakespeare. I like talking and thinking across the ages. ( )
  jdukuray | Dec 31, 2014 |
Apparently, Montaigne is hard to write about, because he is hard to read. I don't know how to evaluate Bakewell's success or lack of it in her book. It is certainly as meandering as Montaigne. Somehow, she does move forward -- if not in a straight line. I did like the way she included a history of the times and how Montaigne fit in, or didn't. I especially liked how she followed Montaigne's influence on other thinkers (Pascal, Rousseau, Nitzsche, many others) right up to the 21st century. She pays attention to the literary and even textual scholarship on Montaigne's Essays.

It was not her intention, but the result of reading her book for me was to make me much less interested in reading Montaigne himself. Although Montaigne may speak to everyone, she claims, what she cited and described left me gasping for intellectual breath, as in, no oxygen.

But I should probably get around to reading Montaigne. Or maybe not. Montaigne would say, "Whatever." ( )
  KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
It is hard to imagine a better introduction-or reintroduction- to Montaigne than Bakewell's book. It is easy to imagine small improvements, however.
added by Shortride | editHarper's Magazine, Loren Stein (pay site) (Jan 3, 2011)
Bakewell manages to glide gracefully across current editorial ranklings over his texts without taking sides. Central as the essays are to her own approach to his life, it is ultimately his life-loving ­vivacity that she succeeds in communicating to her readers: "What he left behind was all the better for being imperfect, ­ambiguous, inadequate and vulnerable to distortion. 'Oh Lord,' one might imagine Montaigne exclaiming, 'by all means let me be misunderstood.'"
added by peterbrown | editThe Observer, Ruth Scurr (Jan 24, 2010)
Bakewell, cleverly, has nonetheless managed to tap into the booming modern market for such “quick boosts” of wisdom (not all of them by any means as harmless as tips on eyebrow shaping), while actually writing a serious biography of a serious thinker from an age less like our own that we might solipsistically think. She’s not the first to take on such a task, of course. Superior literary lessons for life have become an established sub-genre of the self-help boom: How to Win Friends and Influence Readers of the Paris Review. Thus books such as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life or John Armstrong’s Love, Life, Goethe have explored this territory in their different ways. Bakewell’s life of Montaigne combines some of the merits of de Botton’s knowing, entertaining intellectual squib and Armstrong’s thorough and absorbing biographical study. If her work enjoys a popular resonance greater than theirs—and I think it may—it’s most likely a tribute to its subject, Montaigne.
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How does one live? How does one do the good or honorable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy? This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Montaigne, perhaps the first truly modern individual. A nobleman, public official and wine-grower, he wrote free-roaming explorations of his thought and experience, unlike anything written before. He called them "essays," meaning "attempts" or "tries." Into them, he put whatever was in his head: his tastes in wine and food, his childhood memories, the way his dog's ears twitched when it was dreaming, as well as the appalling events of the religious civil wars raging around him. The Essays was an instant bestseller and, over four hundred years later, Montaigne's honesty and charm still draw readers. This spirited biography relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored.--From publisher description.… (more)

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