‘How to Live’ by Sarah Bakewell

Sarah Bakewell How To Live or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. 2010, 331 p. & notes

I think that all readers have their own literary bucket list of books that they want to read before they die.  Mine are all big baggy things that I want to gorge myself on: James Joyce’s Ulysses,  Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith trilogy’, Eleanor Dark’s Timeless Land trilogy, and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (I’ve read two, but I’d like to read them one after the other).  I did have on this list Montaigne’s Essays, but it has occurred to me that Montaigne doesn’t require the big Christmas holiday commitment like these other books do.  He’s better read in small snatches, and is indeed tailor-made for an e-reader because, after all,  who’d want to cart that hefty volume around on the off-chance of the quick dip?

In fact, it occurs to me that Montaigne would have made a fantastic blogger, because his Essays are quirky and digressive, just as a good blog is. [An aside- one of my favourite, digressive, informed and very Montaignesque blogs is Historians are Past Caring] This book, How to Live, is a biography in the quirky and digressive spirit of Montaigne too.  It, like Montaigne, takes the question “how to live?” and distills twenty answers that Montaigne might have given, as prisms onto Montaigne the man and his work.

The twenty  attempts at an answer? Don’t worry about death; pay attention; be born; read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted; survive love and loss; use little tricks; keep a private room behind the shop; be convivial, live with others; wake from the sleep of habit; live temperately; guard your humanity; do something no one has done before; see the world; do a good job but not too good a job; philosophize only by accident; reflect on everything but regret nothing;  give up control; be ordinary and imperfect; let life be its own answer.

As you might sense from these chapter headings, this is a biography, but it doesn’t read as such.  At the end of the book the author includes a chronology of Montaigne’s life- even the placement of this chronology at the back of the book rather than at the front is surprising- and I was comforted to find that I had somehow gleaned the major trajectories of Montaigne’s life, even though the author had zig-zagged chronologically throughout the book. The book is generously peppered with artwork- black and white, unfortunately- but in good Montaignian spirit it is not captioned, leading you to wonder what it is, and why it’s there.  The notes at the back provide the details, as well as full footnotes and references.  This is a well-researched book, but it wears the research lightly and plays with it in good humour, just as Montaigne himself might have done.

Bakewell places his life within the political and cultural milieu of the time, and locates it within a broader philosophical palette. I particularly liked her exploration of  Montaigne as a Phyrrhonian Sceptic- someone who is happy to suspend judgment, as a sort of mental calm and openness to uncertainty.

We, and our judgment, and all mortal things go on flowing and rolling unceasingly.  Thus nothing certain can be established about one thing by another, both the judging and the judged being in continual change and motion. (Essays, II,  12, p552 Frame version)

It is this diffidence and openness to question that makes Montaigne such delightful company.  In a world of braying certainty from the media, fundamentalist religions and partisan politics, it’s refreshing to watch someone walk around a topic, trailing off into tangents and viewing it from different angles.  In good blogger fashion, Montaigne was willing to go back to adjust his ideas, modify his stance and raise questions with himself- much as bloggers often go back to tweak a post.  Of course, this wrought havoc with the different editions of his essays as they were released, as he changed words, qualified his opinions and inserted paragraphs.

Montaigne’s annotations, corrections and insertions to his own text prior to republication of a new edition, Bordeaux copy.

She also traces the history of the Essays as an artefact through its different editions and translations.  In a very Montaignian spirit, it seems that there is no absolutely definitive edition, and that each has its drawbacks and advantages, and might have been changed yet again had Montaigne had opportunity to publish yet another edition.

So Montaigne’s Essays have moved up the menu on my e-reader for the quick dabble.  Somehow, I think that’s just the way he’d like them to be read, too.

Read because:  I felt like it

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

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One response to “‘How to Live’ by Sarah Bakewell

  1. Pingback: My best reads for 2012 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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