Question Of The Day

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.

Some reviews:

“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.

bookclub-beagle-trSo 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!

The Search For A Modern Montaigne

Christy Wampole champions the essay, using the word “essayism” for “what happens when [the essay] cannot be contained by its generic borders, leaking outside the short prose form into other formats such as the essayistic novel, the essay-film, the photo-essay, and life itself”:

Essayism consists in a self-absorbed subject feeling around life, exercising what Theodor Adorno called the “essay’s groping intention,” approaching everything tentatively and with short attention, drawing analogies between the particular and the universal. Banal, everyday phenomena — what we eat, things upon which we stumble, things that Pinterest us — rub elbows implicitly with the Big Questions: What are the implications of the human experience? What is the meaning of life? Why something rather than nothing? Like the Father of the Essay, we let the mind and body flit from thing to thing, clicking around from mental hyperlink to mental hyperlink: if Montaigne were alive today, maybe he too would be diagnosed with A.D.H.D.

Why we need to cultivate the more thoughtful, meditative aspects of these tendencies:

Essayism, as an expressive mode and as a way of life, accommodates our insecurities, our self-absorption, our simple pleasures, our unnerving questions and the need to compare and share our experiences with other humans. I would argue that the weakest component in today’s nontextual essayism is its meditative deficiency. Without the meditative aspect, essayism tends toward empty egotism and an unwillingness or incapacity to commit, a timid deferral of the moment of choice. Our often unreflective quickness means that little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched upon. The experiences are simply had and then abandoned. The true essayist prefers a more cumulative approach; nothing is ever really left behind, only put aside temporarily until her digressive mind summons it up again, turning it this way and that in a different light, seeing what sense it makes. She offers a model of humanism that isn’t about profit or progress and does not propose a solution to life but rather puts endless questions to it.

We need a cogent response to the renewed dogmatism of today’s political and social landscape and our intuitive attraction to the essay could be pointing us toward this genre and its spirit as a provisional solution. Today’s essayistic tendency — a series of often superficial attempts relatively devoid of thought — doesn’t live up to this potential in its current iteration, but a more meditative and measured version à la Montaigne would nudge us toward a calm taking into account of life without the knee-jerk reflex to be unshakeably right. The essayification of everything means turning life itself into a protracted attempt.

Recent Dish on essays here.