How to Live--or--a Life of Montaigne : in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer

How to Live--or--a Life of Montaigne : in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer

Book - 2010
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Winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

How to get along 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 honorable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy?

This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de 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 people to him. Readers come in search of companionship, wisdom and entertainment--and in search of themselves.

This book, a spirited and singular biography, relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored. It traces his bizarre upbringing, youthful career and sexual adventures, his travels, and his friendships with the scholar and poet Étienne de La Boétie and with his adopted "daughter," Marie de Gournay. And we also meet his readers--who for centuries have found in Montaigne an inexhaustible source of answers to the haunting question, "how to live?"
Publisher: New York : Other Press, c2010
Edition: Other Press ed
ISBN: 9781590514252
Branch Call Number: PQ1643 .B34 2010b
848.3 B168h
Characteristics: ix, 389 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm


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May 01, 2019

Where to begin this review - it took me about 3 months to get through reading this book, and now that I’m done, I feel sort of empty and as though my relationship with Montaigne has come to an end. This wasn’t a book that I could devour over a week like Bakewell’s ‘At The Existentialist Cafe’. I had to let the chapters sit in my mind and marinate before I could read any further. There is so much ground that is covered here, I feel as though Montaigne and I may as well have known each other in real life - that goes to show how well Bakewell researched for this book and how meticulously she provides an image of who he was.

The content does get a little dry from time to time when names and dates are being thrown out page after page, and since I would leave the book for weeks at an end before coming back to it, I would need to refresh my memory as to who some of the key players were in Montaigne’s life. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you’re into that sort of detail.

I really enjoyed this book and am glad I read this before attempting to read Montaigne’s ‘Essays’. It definitely helps knowing who the man was and where he came from and what sort of a life he lived for one to fully understand what his masterpiece is trying to convey. The amount of history covered about Montaigne (from his birth, to his death, and how his work has evolved over the centuries, right up to modern day editions of his book) is astounding. To give you an idea of just how much history and information there is in this book, here’s a fun fact - the last 60 pages are just a glossary and references for the book.

Bakewell’s writing style is extremely light hearted and fun to read along with; it is as though she’s talking directly to you as a friend and sharing her love and fascination for the man. I don’t think I would have been able to read so much about a person who I barely knew anything about before starting this book had it not been for how accessible and intriguing Bakewell’s writing is.

And now that I’m done, the real work begins - thinking about all the answers Montaigne tries to provide about how to live a life.

Mar 13, 2016

"Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself."
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a nobleman, a wine-maker, and a government official, but he is remembered for his series of essays, which explored everything from friendship to cannibalism. In these essays, we see glimmers of a distinctive temperament and a probing intelligence that was interested in just about everything. His approach to subjects--idiosyncratic, curious, un-dogmatic--is pretty much the blueprint for the personal essay. Sarah Bakewell's absorbing book is both a biography and a look at Montaigne's philosophy on life. Montaigne emerges as someone who, in an age of fear, violence, and religious fanaticism, was moderate, rational, and open to everything around him. One could do far worse than to try and emulate Montaigne.

Aug 15, 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
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?

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.

Apr 08, 2013

I enjoyed this book so much I stopped reading it-and have bought a copy. what else is there to say?

Aug 02, 2012

Excellent. An interesting approach to biography. The book led me to Montaigne's essays and what could be a better recommendation for this book.

ser_library Jan 04, 2012

a wonderful introduction to Montaigne

Dec 15, 2011

I have the paperback copy of this book and the font is so small I read with difficulty even with reading glasses. Can't see if there is a different format at the library.
Sort of spoils the fun of reading, but still a lot of the information is interesting, about Montaigne's life and times.
His own Essays are way more interesting to read, though :-)


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