Customer Reviews for

How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

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  • Posted June 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    On my BEST OF 2011 list

    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 world.is 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

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 1, 2011

    "best of practice" guide to living and dying and a lot of other stuff

    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!

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 29, 2012

    Totally Absorbing

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 14, 2012

    20 simple questions

    Sarah Bakewell does a magnificent job of looking at a complicated man.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Wonderful Book Printed on Poor Quality Paper

    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.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 11, 2013

    Highly recommended

    Great read....but it.....a very wise man...but lived in a different time

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2012

    Good read

    Clearly written with intelligence insight and wit.

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  • Posted November 29, 2011

    Ideas From The Man Who Inspired the Enlightenment

    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.

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    Posted March 13, 2011

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