This is a totally fabulous book – not for everyone, I suppose, but if you’re interested in the life and times, the ideas (!), of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century father of the essay, it is pure-d terrific. Bakewell is obviously a fan and hopes to persuade her readers to join her. I believe the “philosophy” is as relevant today as ever – it is to me, anyway.
I must have read a few bits of Montaigne in my college days, or at least skimmed over his name in some history text, but I guess I wasn’t impressed because prior to a few months ago I had no real memory of him or his writings. I’ve read some now and plan on more – maybe a lot more.
Anyway, I’d wanted to read How To Live ever since I read Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe several months ago because, imo, Sarah Bakewell can write the bark of a tree (or the pixels off a screen – whichever). So when the book was selected for discussion by the All-Nonficiton Group I jumped to alertness, but held myself back from reading it until close to the scheduled date. (Am I not good, or what?)
How to Live: Or a Life of Mantaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
by Sarah Bakewell
2017 / 318 pages
read by Davina Porter
rating: 9.75 – biography/history/philosophy/
(read and listened)
Ah…. readable philosophy. Yes, the book has a slow start, but by the third chapter I was fully immersed and hunting up some of the man’s essays.
The Question is – “How to Live” – and Bakewell’s book is divided into twenty chapters each containing an aspect and some development of Montaigne’s answer.
1 – Don’t Worry About Death
2 – Pay Attention
3. Be Born
4 Read a lot, forget most of what you read, be slow-witted
5. Survive Love and Loss
6. Use Little Tricks
7. Question Everything
8. Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop
9. Be Convivial, live with others
10. Wake from sleep of habit
11. Live temporarily
12. Guard your humanity
13. Do something no one has done before
14. See the world
15. Do a good job, but not too good a job
16. Philosophize only by accident
17. Reflect on everything, regret nothing
18. Give up control
19. Be ordinary and imperfect
20. Let life be its own answer
That’s it – “How to live.” –
And this biography consists of a lot of philosophy and history because the times were those of the Reformation struggles (Wars of Religion in France), the age of Enlightenment and the aftermath. But Montaigne’s writings lived on – and on – and on, morphing into the ideas of whatever age they found themselves in. As his life in the age of Reformation and French Civil Wars ended, his ideas came up against those of Pascal (very religious) and Descartes (very rational). And Bakewell compares him to the Epicurians, the Stoics and the Skeptics after which she goes on to examine the views held by Rousseau and the Romanticists re Montaigne as well as George Sand, Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
There is by necessity a certain amount of chronological biography to it – Montaigne’s upbringing was unusual, his close friendship with a yount man who died very young and suddenly, his occupations in law and politics, marriage, are examined.
It’s not a terribly well organized book but it works, because the structure allows for working out of the context which is vital to Montaigne’s essays – and then the subjects morph back into a mirror of the reader.