How To Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer/Sarah Bakewell: Reflections

Sunday, April 3, 2011

At my advanced age, any insights into how to improve my living (before it is, indeed, too late) are welcome.  Besides, I've always liked reading Michel Eyquem de Montaigne or about him, and besides (and in addition), I write memoir, I teach it, and I blog; I have, in other words, a debt to pay when it comes to this thoroughly-modern 16th-century wine-growing Frenchman who made it his practice to pay attention—to himself, mostly, and to those around him—and to write down what he thought.

Long story short:  As soon as I heard about Sarah Bakewell's How to Live or A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, I bought it.  This weekend, I sat down and read it.

Oh, what pleasure I have had.  How much respect I have for Bakewell's thoroughly ingenious, utterly companionable go at a man and his era.  No mere biography, this.  No self-help guide, either.  Might we call it a romp, then, through history and idea?  Might we simply say that history rarely feels this contemporary, especially when centuries stand between the subject and the reader?

Montaigne spent years observing, contradicting, bellowing, whimpering, celebrating, complaining.  He wrote hundreds upon hundreds of "essay" pages.  Bakewell organizes the best of him, his times, and his work into twenty chapters that are titled like this:

Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop.
Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity
Q. How to live? A. See the world.
Q. How to live? A. Reflect on everything; regret nothing.
Q. How to live? A. Let life be its own answer. 

You're in love with this already, right? (Come on.  It's just us. Tell the truth.)  You want an excuse to sit with a fat hardcover filled with old-time iconography and well-told stories about a long-dead man so that you can (at your leisure) take measure of your own life, your own ways, your next steps.  I know this about you, for I know it about me.  We're human, the two of us, and so it's what we need.

P.S. This photo, taken earlier today at Chanticleer garden, heralds spring where I live.  It heralds seeing.


Lilian Nattel said...

Gorgeous photo, and yes I like it!

Sherry said...

Yes, you're right. As always.

Karen Mahoney said...

Now, look! I went and ordered it... How did you know this was just what I needed? :)

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