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How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010)

by Sarah Bakewell

Other authors: Yvonne E. Cárdenas (Editor), John Gall (Cover designer)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,005868,351 (4.14)102
How to get on well with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love - such questions arise in most people's lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: how do you live? How do you do the good or honourable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy? This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92), 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 people to him. Readers come to him in search of companionship, wisdom and entertainment - and in search of themselves. This book, a spirited and singular biography (and the first full life of Montaigne in English for nearly fifty years), relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored. It traces his bizarre upbringing (made to speak only Latin), youthful career and sexual adventures, his travels, and his friendships with the scholar and poet Etienne de La Boetie and with his adopted 'daughter', Marie de Gournay. And as we read, we also meet his readers - who for centuries have found in Montaigne an inexhaustible source of answers to the haunting question, 'how to live?'.… (more)
  1. 10
    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.
  2. 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.
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» See also 102 mentions

English (79)  Dutch (3)  French (2)  Italian (1)  German (1)  All languages (86)
Showing 1-5 of 79 (next | show all)
This is unlike any book I have ever read. It's about a philosopher but a philospher to wasn't abstract. Michel de Montaigne was practical, down-to-earth, and this made me enjoy learning about him. It's long, but readable and I'll probably go back to it because I turned down many page corners in order to refer back some day. ( )
  dvoratreis | May 22, 2024 |
This is the best book I've read this year. Part biography, part history, part literary criticism, it explores Montaigne, his world, and his work.

Starting with Montaigne's Essays, and spiraling out to encompass his life, and the life of his work over the centuries since he died, Bakewell has written a book unlike anything else I have ever read. ( )
  rumbledethumps | Nov 25, 2023 |
I enjoyed this book tremendously. It's really a history of Montaigne's Essays, rather than a life of Montaigne. Obviously Montaigne himself is a very important figure in that history, and Bakewell gives him ample space, but the ideas, reception, interpretation and use of the Essays also feature very prominently.

The structure of the book is brilliant, being organised in three dimensions at once: Montaigne's life, the history of the Essays before and after publication and Montaigne's philosophy. Incredibly, despite all that going on, it's easy to follow. The organisation is so neat that when I was reading about Montaigne's life I thought I was reading a biography, when I was reading about the book's reception I thought I was reading a history of the Essays and when I was reading about his thought I thought it was a Montaigne primer. And which of these modes the book is in can change from paragraph to paragraph, even sentence to sentence.

Bakewell achieves this complexity through a combination of meticulous organisation and crystal clear, engaging prose. I imagine Bakewell's planning documents for this book would look like the exploded diagram of a luxury car - it takes a lot of work to allow you to tap the accelerator and glide forward effortlessly and an incredible eye to also make it a beautiful experience.

I'm looking forward to reading some of the Essays and finding out what all the fuss was about. ( )
  robfwalter | Jul 31, 2023 |
Just read Montaigne. ( )
  markm2315 | Jul 1, 2023 |
This is a deceptively clever book which manages to imitate Montaigne's style while covering the story of his life and times; his critics and supporters over the centuries since his death; and the philosophical positions by which he lived. Bakewell also explains why Montaigne's book of essays was so revolutionary when first published in the late 16th century. It is quirw an enjoyable read and quite erudite without seeming so. ( )
  nmele | May 21, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 79 (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.
 

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sarah Bakewellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cárdenas, Yvonne E.Editorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gall, JohnCover designersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Porter, DavinaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves.
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How to get on well with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love - such questions arise in most people's lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: how do you live? How do you do the good or honourable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy? This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92), 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 people to him. Readers come to him in search of companionship, wisdom and entertainment - and in search of themselves. This book, a spirited and singular biography (and the first full life of Montaigne in English for nearly fifty years), relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored. It traces his bizarre upbringing (made to speak only Latin), youthful career and sexual adventures, his travels, and his friendships with the scholar and poet Etienne de La Boetie and with his adopted 'daughter', Marie de Gournay. And as we read, we also meet his readers - who for centuries have found in Montaigne an inexhaustible source of answers to the haunting question, 'how to live?'.

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