A reader asks:
What are you picking for Book Club #3? I’m super antsy … and July is here. Tell! Tell us! Tell us all! Or just respond so I may quietly read while everyone else is blowing shit up over the weekend.
Heh. Well, yes, it is July, and a major political book did not seem like the best way for me to read on the beach this summer. So I picked a book I’ve long wanted to read but never got around to – about an author who remains among my favorite non-fiction masters of all time and blogger avant la lettre: Montaigne.
The book is How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell.
It’s an innovative approach to biography – it’s really a series of meditations, based on Montaigne’s life and work, on some of life’s big questions. The “answers” to How To Live? come in many Montaigne-inspired recommendations: Survive Love and Loss; Question Everything; Live Temperately; Do A Good Job, But Not Too Good A Job; Give Up Control; among many others. It has an Amazon rating of 4.4 out of 5, and won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography.
“Ms. Bakewell’s new book, How to Live, is a biography, but in the form of a delightful conversation across the centuries.” —The New York Times
“So artful is Bakewell’s account of [Montaigne] that even skeptical readers may well come to share her admiration.” —New York Times Book Review
“Extraordinary…a miracle of complex, revelatory organization, for as Bakewell moves along she provides a brilliant demonstration of the alchemy of historical viewpoint.” —Boston Globe
“Well, How to Live is a superb book, original, engaging, thorough, ambitious, and wise.” —Nick Hornby, in the November/December 2010 issue of The Believer
“In How to Live, an affectionate introduction to the author, Bakewell argues that, far from being a dusty old philosopher, Montaigne has never been more relevant—a 16th-century blogger, as she would have it—and so must be read, quite simply, ‘in order to live’…Bakewell is a wry and intelligent guide.” —The Daily Beast
I also have an ulterior motive. For me, Montaigne’s essays – first read in college – have long been a source of enthusiasm and inspiration. His constant curiosity, his openness to new ideas, his willingness to change his mind, his capacity for growth and humor, his staggering honesty, his wit and humaneness: all helped create and nurture the emergence of the modern individual in the West. Along with Shakespeare, he saw humanity in his day in its entirety, and, like Shakespeare, was somehow able to regard it with the perspective of the ages. As literature, he also pioneered the essay as a form, and the personal voice in writing in ways not seen since Augustine. If there were one powerful influence behind my approach to blogging, it would be Montaigne.
So dig in – and perhaps be inspired to go to the source material as well, as long as you get Donald Frame’s still-peerless translation. Sarah has agreed to join us in a few weeks to carry on the conversation. So let’s use this book to think about that simple question: how to live? It’s an area so ripe for reader anecdotes and stories and personal journeys that it seemed perfect for a summer discussion. Buy it here – and help give the Dish some affiliate income, and get yourself a deck-chair or a hammock.
And Happy Fourth!