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

by Sarah Bakewell


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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? This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, considered by many to be the first truly modern individual. He wrote free-roaming explorations of his thoughts and experience, unlike anything written before. More than 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. Just as they will to this spirited and singular biography.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590514832
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 09/20/2011
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 129,562
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.28(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

Sarah Bakewell was a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library before becoming a full-time writer, publishing her highly acclaimed biographies The Smart and The English Dane. She lives in London, where she teaches creative writing at City University and catalogs rare book collections for the National Trust.

Read an Excerpt

The riding accident, which so altered Montaigne’s perspective, lasted only a few moments in itself, but one can unfold it into three parts and spread it over several years. First, there is Montaigne lying on the ground, clawing at his stomach while experiencing euphoria. Then comes Montaigne in the weeks and months that followed, reflecting on the experience and trying to reconcile it with his philosophical reading. Finally, there is Montaigne a few years later, sitting down to write about it – and about a multitude of other things. The first scene could have happened to anyone; the second to any sensitive, educated young man of the Renaissance. The last makes Montaigne unique.
     The connection is not a simple one: he did not sit up in bed and immediately start writing about the accident. He began the Essays a couple of years later, around 1572, and, even then, he wrote other chapters before coming to the one about losing consciousness. When he did turn to it, however, the experience made him try a new kind of writing, barely attempted by other writers: that of re-creating a sequence of sensations as they felt from the inside, following them from instant to instant.

Customer Reviews

How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 58 reviews.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
When the publishing industry is in decline and our expectation of instant gratification make TV and the internet our primary sources for news, one would have to ask oneself: is this the best time to publish a new book on the philosophy of a discursive French essayist who died over 400 years ago? Of course, the answer would have to be "it depends." Sarah Bakewell has managed to make Michel de Montaigne seem relevant, perhaps even revolutionary, but certainly eminently likeable. Montaigne would have been an exceedingly popular blogger, for he took incidents of daily life and held them up for examination as well as using them as stepping stones to rambling narrative. He inspired loyal devotees and provoked, and enjoyed, passionate rebuttal. "No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, whatever contrast it offers with my own." One could argue endlessly, happily, and undoubtedly profitably, with such a man. For twenty years, from ages 38 to 59, he mainly stayed at his estate in the Bordeaux region along the Dordogne River, and wrote essays. He came close to death in a riding accident, weathered various occurrences of plague (though the love of a lifetime, La Boétie, was taken), and was victim of various ailments that could have been alleviated today but which eventually killed him. Importantly, he lived through the period of time known as The Saint Bartholomew Wars, which was recently cited in a book on modern counter-insurgency as an example of one of the longest and most consequential non-state religion-based internecine conflicts characterized by extreme violence, bloodshed and carnage: Catholics on Protestants. It led Montaigne to write, "There is no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility." And yet Montaigne managed to maintain a sense of proportion and breadth of perspective that seems positively Zen. Montaigne had a fascination with pragmatic schools of philosophy like Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism. All these schools had the same aim: to achieve a way of living known as "happiness," "joy," or "human flourishing" (from the Greek eudaimonia). The schools agreed that the best path to eudaimonia was ataraxia, which can be translated as "imperturbability" or "freedom from anxiety." (Does this not sound like Buddhism to you?) It appears a key to living well, fully, and without regret is cultivating mindfulness: A person who does not sleepwalk through the freed to respond to situations in the right way, without hesitation-as if they were questions asked all of a sudden, as Epictetus puts it...Whatever happens, however unforeseen it is, you should be able to respond in a suitable way. This is why, for Montaigne, learning to live "appropriately" (à propos) is the "great and glorious masterpiece" of human life. (pp. 111-112) But what it is about this book that makes me convinced there is no better time to introduce this back into the mainstream? It is Sarah Bakewell's handling of the material, in which she proves herself a fascinating conversationalist. In lesser hands, the material could have seemed distant at best. But she allows Montaigne himself to shine: his work seems as amusing and fresh as a friend declaiming over a glass of wine-red wine, white wine-you never know with with Michel. I haven't yet read Montaigne's Essays, but I certainly intend to now. It seems a pity to leave Montaigne to experts. I relished the background and erudition
voltaireTW More than 1 year ago
Montaigne is a great pleasure to read and to read about. Part of the pleasure is that his essays are so vivid while standing over 400 years away from us. On top of that, the structure of this biography is very clever. It not only provides 20 meaty answers to the question, How to Live?, but also takes us easily through Montaigne's writings, the classical sources of his writings, the events of his life, the history he lived through and the varying receptions his writing got in his and succeeding eras.
Wilvis More than 1 year ago
A "best of practice" guide to living and dying, in the form of 20 questions, drawn from sources going back three thousand years, written by a Frenchman living in the late 1500s. His name was Montaigne. Landowner, lawyer and Mayor, he had a near brush with death, and by almost dying, commenced to write about himself and his world. He published, and invented the genre of personal essay. Author Sarah Bakewell captures not only his world, but effect of Montaigne's writing on the four hundred subsequent years of authors grappling with the everyday mysteries of life and practical things you and I can do to act with honor and grace. Sarah Bakewell does us a great service by doing a hell  of a lot reading. The various authors who read Montaigne and how doing so influenced their work and life and times.  Montaigne has never gone out of print as each generation has found meaning for themselves in his musings, meanders which guide us in our own choices about how to live. I liked it so much I read large portions aloud to my wife, who asked for more!
shellyschultz More than 1 year ago
Great read....but it.....a very wise man...but lived in a different time
deadairman More than 1 year ago
Sarah Bakewell does a magnificent job of looking at a complicated man.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Clearly written with intelligence insight and wit.
ElaineDrew More than 1 year ago
This is a very readable and accessible account of Montaigne's life, times, and thought. Sarah Bakewell has made me feel as if I know the man, and he's an affable and thought-provoking companion.
TedMorgan More than 1 year ago
I just received my copy of what I think will be a terrific work. However, the poor quality of the paper on which this work is printed upsets me. Books like this, books one hopes to read more than once and to keep, ought to be printed on better quailty paper. However, This is a delightful essay. Reading it is fun. The discursive style of the book mirrors the best in Montaigne and those who emulate him. I will return to this volume from time to time.
michaelbartley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this biography of Montaigne and his work Essays. It whowed how the work was written how it was seened in different times. Montaigne was a very interesting man
FKarr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
excellent: entertaining, informative, enlightening; a biography not heavy on detail but on the essence of Montaigne's spirit
librarianbryan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was alright but really just read Montaigne's Essays. This is really just an advert for them anyway.
tombowne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Take a passable biography of an aristocrat who wrote a lot, add an academic study of how people have reacted to the writings through the centuries, garnish with an irrelevant marketing gimmick that makes it sound like a self-help book. Bake for hundreds of pages. Serve cold.
Chelyse on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am utterly charmed by this book, not just Montaigne, but by the author who has found a way to bring the man into my life so gracefully I feel I have met him. I like the way it is structured, each section asking "How to Live?" and the answers: "Use tricks", "Read a lot, forget what you read, and be slow-witted," Wake from the sleep of habit," etc. Along the way Montaigne's own story unfolds. I am reading the library book, but I intend to buy it.
claudeboyd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The best nonfiction book to come along in at least a year is set in 16th-century France. Without a single boring page, "How to Live" rolls conversationally through the much-analyzed life of Montaigne, the brilliant and approachable French essayist who has been called the Original Blogger for his tendency to philosophize about everyday life situations and dilemmas. Author Sarah Bakewell is great company along the way -- evenhanded, devoted to her subject but not slavishly so, erudite and in full command of very tricky material. Plus, she's always ready with a joke or odd tidbit, like the one about the French king who popularized a shirt with four sleeves.
dono421846 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I confess that the sheer bulk of the text has, until now, dissuaded me from attempting to tackle The Essays. After reading this delightful and engaging biography, however, I not only feel ready to attempt that feat, but even believe I am in a position to appreciate what I'll find.
Brasidas on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book. I enjoyed Montaigne's ESSAYS immensely when I read them some years ago. Yet one leaves the ESSAYS, or at least I did, with little understanding of how Montaigne's thought fits into an historical context. Like most Americans (U.S.), I was not trained in the belles lettres. Thus I've always had trouble with the piled-high abstractions of most philosophers. Moreover, being slow-witted I do not possess the capacity for fielding more than a few at a time. So the great philosophers were always opaque to me. Montaigne by contrast was the first "philosopher" I could read. He was the first philosopher I came across who could--if I may be so brash--actually write. Yet the ESSAYS make no attempt to teach us the classics, nor should they. That's why this book by Bakewell is so useful. She shows us not only how the ESSAYS arose in the context of Montaigne's life and times, but also how they are linked to works of the great philosophers. In doing this she has done me a service for which I am inordinately grateful. I think this book would serve just as nicely as an introduction to the ESSAYS as it has for me served as a much needed, clarifying afterword. Highly recommended.
jacoombs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A delightful biography of Montaigne organized around twenty answers to the question "how to live" as revealed by both his life and the essays. Great historical context and a sympathetic reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Positive (For the non-expert Montaigne reader): Relates many key biographical points on Montaigne's life to readers who would never have even attempted to read Montaigne; which sparks a renewed interest in Montaigne. Yay! She also does a good job of explaining complex philosophical concepts, which I would not have grasped at all in my reading of Hugo Friedrich and Jean Starobinski without her help. I mean really, how many philosophical concepts can one man convey!? My sincere thanks for making Montaigne more approachable Sarah Bakewell. Negative: Sarah Bakewell's view of Montaigne is one of a middle-aged lady from the 21st century who refuses to humble herself to understand a Christian man from the Renaissance. Instead of exploring Montaigne's Christianity, she explores her own views on spirituality and being free of judgement...both definitions that are not held by Christians of Montaigne's time, but by modern secularists in the Anglophone world. She lacks the reflective discourse necessary to gauge a figure such as Montaigne in a critical manner, yet masterfully appeals to the modern English-speaking reader with superficial musings which guide the reader into believing that not only was Montaigne "free of judgement" and "spiritual", but that this prescription be for the reader to apply this to his or her life as well. Bakewell tries so hard to fuse modern ways of thinking with Montaigne, that she actually ends by making Montaigne, for the reader, into something that he is not. As hippy dippy as she makes him seem, and her suggesting that he had an affair with his adopted daughter, and that he was having a homosexual relationship with a man simply because he admired him, I ended up feeling cheated by the end of the book because of Bakewell's lack of depth. Being adulterous with his adopted daughter and being homosexual were mentioned by Bakewell without a shred of evidence, but simply posited as things that men back then did. Her entire book has the taint of her bias. I found that Sarah Bakewell's hatred of patriarchal figures made her want to demystify Montaigne into her actually ridiculing him. Better put, she emasculates him. Sarah Bakewell made Montaigne's Essais easier to understand, but I did not learn to respect Montaigne until I actually read his work itself. I was like a child hearing stories about a deceased grandfather (Montaigne) that everyone said was so wise...unfortunately the one telling me the story was my crazy aunt Gladys (Bakewell) from Great Britain who formalized her identity during the hipster years. MJM
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lance_Wilcox More than 1 year ago
In writing a review of "How to Live" by Sarah Bakewell, I feel myself to be discharging a debt: Bakewell’s book provided as much sheer reading pleasure as anything I’ve come across in some time. In fact (not to get too “meta”), in writing her book, Bakewell seems to have felt she was discharging a debt to Montaigne for the same gift. For over four centuries, readers have been finding in Montaigne less an author than a friend, one of the sanest, most observant, courageous, and disarmingly modest friends one could hope for, and often one of the funniest. Few writers have ever so vividly reflected their personalities in their writing as Montaigne, or had such attractive personalities to reflect. Bakewell, who is frankly and endearingly in love with him, understands and deftly reproduces the very qualities of his writing that have made him so popular for so long. Montaigne’s great structural breakthrough was shattering the form of the autobiography and reassembling the pieces on his own terms. He presents himself and his experiences to the reader, not chronologically, but in sparkling, free-form fragments, writing about whatever strikes him at the moment. Bakewell has written a “Life” of Montaigne—not quite a “biography”—along the same lines. Each chapter explores and illuminates some aspect of Montaigne’s life, from his early (and oddly consoling) brush with death, his anguished struggle with the religious violence besetting France, and his love for his adopted (sort of) daughter, to the long gallery of new “Montaignes” constructed by each cultural period since his own. Within chapters, Bakewell is perhaps more systematic than her subject and model, but not by a lot. The result is a portrait of Montaigne along Montaigne’s own lines—relaxed, conversational, freewheeling, and sometimes (again like Montaigne) very funny.
clahain1 More than 1 year ago
A biography of literature's first essayist organized around twenty-one answers to the question: How to Live? Bakewell's exploration of Michel de Montaigne gives us a good sense of the man, his time and his philosophy...or rather his attempt to arrive at a philosophy. Montaigne was an admirer of the Skeptic and  Stoic branches of Hellenic thought, which basically tells people to a) question everything and b) take life  as it comes. This is a great prescription for studying the world and one's own mind, but it wasn't all that conducive to one's health and safety in a time of religious fanaticism and civil strife.  The author does a good job presenting the complicated political and religious conflicts of the time in a way that is understandable to those without specific knowledge about life in 16th-century France. She also shows us how Montaigne, a politician as well as a thinker, managed to negotiate his way through these troubles while keeping his humanity in tact. Some chapters are harder work than others. Bakewell also juggles three time lines: biographical, historical and literary. It requires time and close attention to take it all in. For me, it was the literary time line that lagged. All the intrigue about the many versions of the essays produced in Montaigne's lifetime and then the petty intellectual battles surrounding the editing and interpretation of the work through the centuries got a bit tedious.  Nevertheless, this is an excellent introduction for Montaigne and it made me add his daunting ESSAYS to my reading list.
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