Thursday, August 2, 2012

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have had a three-volume edition of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's Essays on my bookshelf for more than 30 years, unopened since the day they arrived. The Essays are, after all, a classic of Western literature, something every educated reader should have read. And if there's one thing I want to pretend to be, it's an educated reader. Unfortunately, that usually means actually reading the books.

That's why I was taken by Sarah Bakewell's How to Live or A Life of Montaigne, subtitled "In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer." Sarah Bakewell was, the paperback's back jacket tells us, a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library in London, which (I had to look up) is "one of the world's major resources for the study of medical history." Bakewell has published two other biographies and currently teaches creative writing at City University.

The one question is: How to live? The twenty answers include: Don't worry about a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted....survive love and loss...question everything...wake from the sleep of habit...reflect on everything, regret nothing...give up ordinary and imperfect.

Bakewell uses the Montaigne's essays and what we know of his life and times to illustrate these twenty points. One Amazon reviewer was unhappy because she does not explicate the essays, but that's not her purpose. Her goal, as I read her, is to show how Montaigne addressed the question of how to live through his biography and, where relevant, the essays. Her book in other words is more a biography than a study of the the writings.

I found it fascinating. I'm not sure I know any better how to live than I knew before, but I do have an appreciation of Montaigne and his times that I did not have before. Bakewell quotes from Montaigne's writings and illustrates the book with etchings and pictures that add to our understanding. 

On the one hand, Montaigne's world—he was born in 1533, died in 1592—is so removed from ours that it seems in some ways totally alien. For example, "For a husband to behave as an impassioned lover to his wife was thought morally wrong because it might turn her into a nymphomaniac.... The physicians warned, too, that excessive pleasure could make sperm curdle inside the woman's body, rendering her unable to conceive."

On the other hand, many of Montaigne's ideas, observations, thoughts seem as fresh and relevant as this morning's opinion column. "Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them." "It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other."  

Now I guess I have to read the actual Essays.

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