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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

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,165536,957 (4.16)80
  1. 00
    Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury 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 50 (next | show all)
I suspect that 2017 is going to be the year of Sarah Bakewell, as far as I am concerned. I was enchanted by her ‘At the Existentialist Café’ a couple of months ago, and found this book even more delightful: informative, insightful and immensely entertaining.

Michel de Montaigne lived in France during the sixteenth century and his collection of ‘Essays’ (a term that he coined) is one of the most important and enduring works of the late Renaissance. His life was spent in the pursuit of knowledge and a relentless quest to sate his boundless curiosity. Having been born into the nobility, his father sent him out to be fostered by a family of local peasants for the first two years of his life. Thereafter he was brought back to the family home, but his father insisted that the child be brought up as a natural speaker of Latin, employing a tutor to teach the infant from the onset of his attempts to talk. From his father he inherited a love of books, and a position of relative ease, though he embarked on a career in local government, eventually being appointed joint Mayor of Bordeaux. This was not a sinecure, and his administration required tactful navigation of a time when religious sectarianism was flaring out of control throughout France.

Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ defy definition incorporating elements of autobiography, political commentary and personal observation along with highly imaginative speculation about the nature and wonders of life. The ‘Essays’ were written over a considerable period spanning most of Montaigne’s life, and his position did not remain consistent. While nominally a Roman Catholic, many commentators have speculated whether he was actually an atheist; others suspect him of Protestant sympathies.

Sarah Bakewell’s book is equally hard to categorise. While essentially telling the story of Montaigne’s life, it also presents a high quality literary critique of the ‘Essays’, analyses the prevailing philosophical views of the time and offers an enthralling history of France in that troubled century. She also provides an extensive exegesis of the responses to Montaigne in the centuries following his death. It is, indeed, nothing less than a rhapsodic paean to Montaigne’s work, fired by Bakewell’s extensive knowledge and clearness fondness for the book. It is not, however, a hagiography, and she does not refrain from criticising some of the weaknesses that she identifies in Montaigne’s approach.

Like Montaigne himself, who has been feted for centuries as a surprisingly accessible writer, Bakewell has an appealing lightness of touch, and the book is a joy to read throughout. ( )
  Eyejaybee | May 21, 2017 |
Acq 2011 ( )
  pheditor | Dec 30, 2016 |
I was skeptical of this book, but I fell in love with it in the end. I can't remember the last time I read a book about a sixteenth-century essayist and wanted to start over and reread it as soon as I finished it. I want to read Montaigne's Essays (I haven't read any of them since college) and then I want to read this again. Highly recommended. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
First a confession. I had never read Montaigne before I picked up this book. Read him? I don't remember even having heard of him. Not something to brag about, I guess, given all the literary luminaries quoted in this book who were much affected by his writing. Ms. Bakewell is convincing that "Montaigne: c'est moi!" happened to a lot of his readers, but reading about him via Bakewell didn't bring that sensation to me. Should I have read at least some of his essays first? Should she have included some?

I liked the way the author 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, Nietzsche, many others) right up to the 21st century. ( )
  LynnB | Nov 2, 2016 |
Bakewell is convincing that "Montaigne: c'est moi!" happened to a lot of his readers,but reading about him via Bakewell didn't bring that sensation to me. Perhaps I am too steeped in modern, terrific memoir and personal essay to think the sensation novel, or perhaps this biography is not the way to get at it.

Bakewell is approachable and her writing is easily at the trade/my level.

I'm keeping too many notebooks. My notes are in the blackbook at the other house. ( )
  torreyhouse | Jun 25, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 50 (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, 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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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sarah Bakewellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Porter, DavinaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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