Todd N's Reviews > How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell
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's review
Dec 31, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: kindle
Read from December 31, 2010 to January 25, 2011

I was once warned by an actual French person from France not to read Montaigne's Essays because he was forced to read it in school, and it was so pointless and boring. Knowing how ultra-patriotic French people from France are about French culture from France, this made a deep impression on me.

But I was warmed up on Montaigne by Alain de Botton's excellent Consolation of Philosophy (and the BBC series I downloaded from Google Video). And now after reading this book about the history of The Essays, which is exactly the same as a biography of Montaigne, (or maybe it's the biography of a book?) I think I'm going to have to read it.

The Essays is one of those rare books, besides the Greek/Roman classics and the Bible, that has been around long enough (1st edition in 1580) to have had enough readers and readings that you can compare your reaction with famous thinkers throughout history.

It's sort of like being in a book club with your favorite philosophers and writers. Pascal hated it. Shakespeare liked it enough to borrow from it. Nietzsche loved it. Descartes hated it. Postmodernists found enough material in it to wank off indefinitely. Diderot, the encyclopedia guy, thought if you didn't like it there was something deeply wrong with you. The Catholic Church liked it okay, but recommended a few changes. A century later they banned it. Two centuries later they unbanned it.

Ms. Bakewell is a fantastic writer, and does a great job describing the historical context (plagues, civil wars, royal intrigue) and the personal context (a heavy bromance, acute awareness of mortality, abandoning his career early to write) in such a way that I'll be able to appreciate The Essays more when I do read it.

The book has an unfortunate self-help-esque title "How To Live," which comes from advice from Flaubert on reading Montaigne: "Don’t read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live."

Using this quote as a starting point, Ms. Bakewell structures her book around twenty possible answers to the question of "How to live" that cover various themes in Montaigne's life and work, and in the way his work lived on through various editions, translations, and interpretations. She dwelled a little too long on different interpretations of The Essays for my taste, but I was interested to learn about the Pyrhonnic skeptcism that was such an influence on his writings, which probably bored other readers.

The book ends with the thought of Montaigne in his tower taking a break from writing to play with his cat and wondering if in fact the cat considers him a plaything. It's a perfect ending, and I think it will be in my mind for a very long time.

If you want a taste of this book, check out her essays in The Guardian at

One Kindle note, the last 1/4th of the book is taken up with notes and citations. So I was shocked when the book ended around 75% of the way through.

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