Mark's Reviews > How to Live: Or 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
Jan 03, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: recentlyread
Read from January 03 to May 27, 2011

Yesterday, the first of January, I downloaded the first three items to my brand new shiny Kindle. Using a digital reading device is a sort of new year’s resolution in itself, in that a year ago I was still pretty resistant to the idea. Once I started reading, and figuring out how to navigate the thing—and how to get rid of annoying stuff like “popular highlights” (passages underlined by other customers, comments, etc.)—it grew on me. And my choices of first downloads struck me as apropos to a new year’s reading resolution as well, though, as Sarah Bakewell points out (in a separate article), Montaigne himself would have objected to the whole notion of such “resolutions.” I’ve read 9% of How to Live?--a measurement of your pace that is always visible at the bottom of the screen and is not as irksome as it might sound—and am enjoying its intelligent mix of biography, history, literary criticism, and application to modern times (one reviewer found this aspect “anachronistic”!). I've never got around to reading Michel de Montaigne, the “inventor of the essay” as a literary form and a fascinating renaissance man of 16th-century France, so I purchased Collected Essays as well (for 89 cents; Bakewell’s copyrighted Amazon Kindle book was the regular price of $9.99) and read a couple of the 100+ essays in the collection. The third item I “bought” (free, like much of the public-domain stuff) was M. R. James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. So what’s wrong with having three reading formats (print, audio, e-book)?

Update after finishing the book (I know, 5 months later; I *was* busy reading a lot of other stuff too...):
Writers in the nonfiction/memoir trade, French Lit majors, and philosophically-minded omnivores (I'll put myself in the latter category) will probably not question my enthusiasm for this book very much. Montaigne is essential to the first, canonical to the second, and both biographically intriguing and generally instructive to the third. Bakewell has cleverly constructed this biography out of what she sees as the twenty central problems in Montaigne's Essays, a fragmented personal exploration of everything from diplomacy in warfare to the difficulties of urination, which he wrote over the last 20-30 years of his life (in the late 1500s) as a well-to-do wine-grower and Bordeaux politician. Bakewell makes all of his answers, which develop his mild and rather modern stoicism (tolerant, non-judgmental, pleasure-oriented), both entertaining and relevant to readers now.

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