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

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  7,921 ratings  ·  885 reviews
Brilliant, original, funny and moving — a vivid portrait of Montaigne, showing how his ideas gave birth to our modern sense of our inner selves, from Shakespeare's plays to the dilemmas we face today.

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 b
Hardcover, 387 pages
Published February 16th 2010 by Chatto & Windus
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Jord I don't think so. You might even find it beneficial to read this book first as it gives context to the essays which may increase you appreciation for …moreI don't think so. You might even find it beneficial to read this book first as it gives context to the essays which may increase you appreciation for them(less)

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Mar 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, 21-ce, uk
This is an excellent book. I enjoyed Michel de Montaigne's Complete 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 overall historical context. Like most people today I was not trained in the "good letters." Moreover, I do not possess the capacity for fielding more that a few abstractions at a time. So the great philosophers have always been rather opaque to me. Montaigne, by contras ...more
This was supposed to be boring. It's about Michel de Montaigne, after all. Michel de Who? You know, the dude who wrote yet another one of those classics we use as doorstops, in this case, The Complete Essays.

So why did I read it? One, I got an ARC, which never hurts. Two, I kept running into hosanna after hosanna in the press. And STILL I went into it with low expectations. It sure looked like the type of book where you enter at your own risk and exit at everyone else's risk (make way!).

Courtney Johnston
Oh, fuck it. I just spent forty minutes writing up what was going to be my best review ever, and lost it by accidentally flipping to Wikipedia. Here's the dim reflection of what might have been ....

I have been trying to read Montaigne's essays for about 12 years now. Montaigne entered my consciousness in my first year at university, when I somehow picked up the notion that every well-rounded reader should be acquainted with his writing.

However, my every attempt to grapple with the Essays has thu
A cleverly digressive account of Montaigne, less a biography, more of an attempt to tell stories of Montaigne's life in the style of his essays, taking in his historical context and the ongoing reception of the man and his works all branching out from the question "how to live" - and in order to offer maximum value to the reader Bakewell offers not a single miserly answer, but a full twenty answers - one for almost everybody, all gleaned from Montaigne. in short nomen est omen and Sarah has bak ...more
Feb 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
On reading about Montaigne while sitting on trains

Most mornings I step onto the last carriage of the train and wander down the aisle to the small seat at the very back. This space is separated from the rest of the passengers by a half-wall and a dirty, square window. Unlike the other seats, there is a small bench where I can my rest belongings and, on rare mornings like this one, tap away on a rickety netbook.

My wife and a couple of friends inhale several books a week before diligently hammering
Roy Lotz
It had the perfect commercial combination: startling originality and easy classification.

With the state of the world—especially of the United States—growing more unsettling and absurd by the day, I felt a need to return to Montaigne, the sanest man in history. Luckily, I had Bakewell’s book tucked away in the event of any crisis of this kind; and I’m happy to report it did take the edge off.

How to Live is a beguiling mixture. While purportedly a biography of Montaigne, it is also, as many
Riku Sayuj

Bakewell's work is too structured and readable to be a modern re-mix of Montaigne! Bakewell takes us through Montaigne's life even as we are taken through the essays and their evolution. To top it off we are also taken through the evolving reception of the essays and of the changing reflections that various readers of various generations and centuries found in them. In the end we are given not only a life of Montaigne but a glimpse at four centuries of Montaigne reading. The book is hard to capt
Brad Lyerla
Jan 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I bought this book not knowing what to expect and, therefore, expecting very little. What a pleasant surprise. And pleasant is the right word for HOW TO LIVE. It is one of the most pleasantly thought-provoking books in memory. Part biography, part literary investigation, part historical commentary and part philosophy, Bakewell has written a smart and satisfying book that can be read quickly. I thought Bakewell's format (twenty attempts to answer a question) might be distracting, but not at all. ...more
Mar 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Despite some initial warning signs (enumerated list, self help), the fantastic cover art and the fact that this book is about Montaigne drew me in. I've started reading his Essays several times and always bailed for one reason or another. I picked this up hoping it would give me some context and get me more excited to read, and maybe even finish the essays. It did. How to Live isn't just a biography of Montaigne, it's a history of Essays with a ton of rich context and interesting descriptions of ...more
Ryan Holiday
Jun 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I got an early copy of this book for a project I am working on. It is spectacular. The book was a bestseller in the UK and was featured in a 6 part series in The Guardian. The format of the book is a bit unusual, instead of chapters it is made up of 20 Montaigne style essays that discuss the man from a variety of different perspectives. I'm very into Montaigne at the moment, as he is an interesting counter to the Stoics and to the Epicureans. More accurately, he is a combination of the two plus ...more
May 27, 2011 marked it as ongoing
Shelves: essays
If Montaigne were alive today, he probably would have been a blogger. One of the more interesting ones...
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 ha ...more
Dec 12, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: life-writing
I dunno. I was expecting something a little jazzier, a little more hip to the jive. The title and subtitle seem to promise a searching, po-mo genre bender, but How to Live is a fairly conventional biography that could have been written at any time in the last fifty years or so. The author comes across as an over-earnest popularizer: "See, kids? Isn’t Montaigne cool? Now I’m going to tell you about the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which is also super interesting. But first we have to go all th ...more
Feb 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
I was looking for something like this, since I have always been curious of Montaigne but I never got up the nerve to read him, so this is a great introduction, and I learned a few more things too. I guess I was kind of looking for a little self help, but without it being self help openly, and I enjoyed it a lot.
Dec 02, 2014 marked it as to-read
Shelves: philosophy

"Cicero says—[Tusc., i. 31.]—"that to study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one's self to die."


I listened to an interview the author gave on her book. Some ideas ahead.

(a) Michel Montaigne (1533-1592) was a French magistrate who, by the age of 37, felt the need to “retire from active duty”. His father having just died, made MM to inherit a wine estate. So, he dedicated his remaining years to reflection; some of this
Apr 30, 2019 marked it as attempted
Shelves: x-on-hold
This is a fine book but I am reading it after Stefan Zweig’s account of Montaigne’s life and it stole all the thunder for me...

PS: Zweig’s version is incredible and very strongly recommended

May need to revisit at a later time...
Aug 28, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Uff da.
More scholarly & serious, less enjoyable, than Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy. If you want to choose one, I recommend the latter. But this isn't difficult, exactly, it's just slow going. The illustrations help.

I don't know if I'll ever read The Essays themselves. Apparently there's just too much controversy about all the different editions and additions (as intended, because Montaigne died in the midst of a major revision) ... but should I ever, I'd choose a
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell is an examination of both the life and work of Montaigne, the 16th writer who basically invented the art of the personal essay.

I first read Montaigne in college and fell in love with him. In my mid-twenties, swept up in an excess of emotions, he seemed too restrained, too balanced. In my 30s, he once again appealed to my desire to live a more self-accepting, balanced life but I was too busy with c
Feb 15, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I can't decide whether the fact that I wish I'd just read Montaigne's Essays instead of Bakewell's book is a criticism or an endorsement. The author certainly presents an enlightening view of the essayist, explicating not only his writing, but also his personal life and the context of the historical events through which he lived. Even the structure of the book, elaborating on twenty possible Montaigne-ian answers to the question of how we should live, manages to be both engaging and appropriate ...more
Aug 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although I know that it is useless, nay, harmful, to regret, I cannot but go back to the saying that "It's not the things we do that we regret. It's those that we have not done." (It is impossible to attribute that to only one person, because it is a universal truth, and many have written it, more have said it, and uncounted multitudes have realized it.)

Would that I had read Montaigne in college. Before marriage. Before parenthood and prosperity-chasing. Before now.

But, I know, now, better than
Justin Evans
A well-written, very well-structured book--surprisingly so, given everything that Bakewell is trying to do: biography, reception history, philosophy, history... But I confess, her Montaigne gives me hives. In these pages, he is reliably contemporary; by far the most interesting thing about Montaigne is his untimeliness. The answer to how to live given here is, depressingly, "do what you, reader of books like this, already do: hedonism, moderation, liberalism, naturalism, centrism, agnosticism, H ...more
Lukas Prytikin
Jan 22, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
BRILLIANT - simply brilliant !
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
Imagine a guy who lived 400 years ago doing facebook. There were no cellphones or cameras yet at that time so he didn’t do “selfies” as we do now, so what we now have of him are just portraits of him showing a balding, aristocratic-looking beard-and-moustache old man of serious mien. He had, however, the same compulsion to capture the everyday moments of his life, and gave in to the felt need to bare his soul to others.

His name was Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533 - 1592), a nobleman, governmen
Victoria Ray
Jun 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In 16 century Montaigne, suffering increasingly from melancholy, retired to the library tower on his estate in the Perigor and began to write his famous Essays (he was 38yo btw). Essays are sometimes called “philosophical”, but they are also psychological, smart and funny. You probably will never read them... that’s why I’d suggest to check this book - absolutely marvellous! Sarah Bakewell did a great job!
Who should check/read it: lazy to read classics, lover of old-fashioned lyrical language, p
Dec 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
Oh my, oh my, this is just a lovely book. It is not a "self-help" book (in the conventional sense), although you can't help but come away from it the richer; nor is it just a biography of one long gone Frenchman. This is a book about conversation, the conversation spun out through the ages, about what on earth we fragile humans are doing here on this planet. The conversation stretches back to the ancients whom Montaigne attempted to channel, and up through modern scholars who have sought to cha ...more
Jan 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
There is a genre of literary criticism which concentrates on the philosophy implicit in a writer's work. I first became conscious of this genre when reading Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life. I have always loved Montaigne's Essays, so I hopefully took up Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer and enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Of course, most writers are not susceptible to this type of treatment, because there isn't
Oct 15, 2010 rated it really liked it
Four stars for subject matter, three stars for authorial treatment. Being a great admirer of Montaigne I could hardly fail to enjoy this book, which might serve as a goodish introduction to the 'Essays' if it weren't better, in the end, to simply read the 'Essays' themselves without introduction. But there's a lot of helpful biographical detail here, and I enjoyed Bakewell's tracing of the history of the Essays' reception and interpretation over the years. Where Bakewell occasionally lost my ent ...more
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 jot
I've not read Montaigne's Essays. But I will because of Bakewell's intriguing biography of Montaigne and her historical overview of how his work has been interpreted by those who have read them since they were first published.

Montaigne was fortunate to be the third generation of a family not involved in the merchant trade. As a result he was considered a noble. It was not a status that he sought, but it was bestowed upon him by the culture in which he was born.

He was an introspective man who clo
Scriptor Ignotus
As Sarah Bakewell would have it, Montaigne is the first modern writer; and since she understands the condition of modernity as an awakening of oneself to oneself as an individual subjectivity—an embodied “I”—Montaigne’s “I-ness” becomes a metahistorical mirror reflecting the “I-nesses” of his descendants and forebears back upon themselves, banishing the dream-fog of inherited meaning and establishing through all time, retroactively, an uncanny modernist horizon of authentic selfhood as the focal ...more
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Sarah Bakewell was a bookseller and a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library before publishing her highly acclaimed biographies The Smart, The English Dane, and the best-selling How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. In addition to writing, she now teaches in the Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Un ...more

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50 likes · 11 comments
“Over the centuries, this interpretation and reinterpretation creates a long chain connecting a writer to all future readers- who frequently read each other as well as the original. Virginia Woolf had a beautiful vision of generations interlinked in this way: of how "minds are threaded together- how any live mind is of the very same stuff as Plato's & Euripides... It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind." This capacity for living on through readers' inner worlds over long periods of history is what makes a book like the 'Essays' a true classic. As it is reborn differently in each mind, it also brings those minds together.” 20 likes
“Seneca put it, life does not pause to remind you that it is running out.” 17 likes
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