Twenty attempts at a review.
03 August 2011
How to Read: A review of Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.
1. How to Read: Consider format
I started this critically acclaimed biography with very little knowledge of Montaigne, but I was intrigued by all the good reviews of the book's writing. I was not disappointed; Bakewell's done a neat thing here with (to my mind) the somewhat tired biography format of birth, life, death.* Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), best known for his almost single-handed creation of the essay form, wrote about anything and everything, and most of his writings deal with the big question: "how to live?" In twenty chapters, Bakewell tells his life story by answering that question in twenty different ways. In the chapter titled "How to Live? Don't Worry about Death" she describes his attitude toward life and a near-death accident/experience he had; in one titled "How to Live? Survive love and loss" she describes his love for his friend La Boetie, who died an early death. It's still largely chronological, but the focus in different chapters on different aspects of his life makes the format of this biography a little something special.
2. How to Read: with great interest
Essays are some of my favorite things to read, and although I didn't know much about Montaigne other than his obsession with writing down the personal details of his life, I started out reading this book with a high level of interest. Plain and simple, I kind of like this guy: "Montaigne had hitherto been keeping two lives going; one urban and political, the other rural and managerial. Although he had run the country estate since the death of his father in 1568, he had continued to work in Bordeaux. In early 1570, however, he put his magistracy up for sale. There other reasons besides the accident...perhaps his own encounter with death, in combination with the loss of his brother, made him think differently about how he wanted to live his life. Montaigne had put in thirteen years of work at the Bordeaux parlement when he took this step. He was thirty-seven--middle-aged perhaps, by the standards of the time, but not old." (pp. 23-24.)
That's right, the guy retired at 37. My kind of guy.
3. How to Read: with growing distraction
Perhaps it's finally happened; my brain has re-wired itself due to all the reading and work I do online, and I'm not able to read long books anymore. But after the 200-page mark my desire to read/finish this book just kind of flagged. It was still interesting, I just kind of...trailed off. I pushed further, and skimmed another 50 pages, but that's it. I'd learned all I wanted to of Montaigne for the time being, that's all. But I'd still recommend this one; I hope to get it back some day and finish it, as well as read Montaigne's actual essays. If only I could retire at 37 that would leave me a lot more time for that sort of thing.
4. How to Read: so many other books that you don't have time to write the full review you promised in the beginning of the post. I'm not going to try to get to 20 questions and answers.
*Although this is also the format of, well, real life, so it makes sense as a biography template.