Some thoughts on How To Live by Sarah Bakewell

How To Live, or, A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell, as published (and, to be fully transparent, provided to me by) Other Press: Hey! Good book, this!

I started this book sometime last year, but since I just finished it this week, I’m freeing it up from the forgiveness of things I meant to and did not write about last year, in order to go ahead and mention in this year, as a book that I have read and, really, quite enjoyed. I read it fairly gradually, this being the latest book I’ve saved for reading over lunch at the day job, ten pages here, twenty there. For whatever reason, I don’t read entire books worth of non-fiction as much as I might like, or might recognize that I perhaps ought to as a human being in search of some sort of general well-rounded humanity-ness, or perhaps, just because, well, there’s a lot of it out there, and I would frequently hardly know where to start. I guess I can safely say at this point though that, should my non-fiction lunch-hour reading-practice continue for the foreseeable future, I can, at the least, point at Bakewell’s book, and nod, and say, “More like that, please.”

Bakewell brings a light touch and an engaging voice to the surprisingly complex tale of Montaigne, a guy who, for all his words about himself (which I have not read, having no experience with the Essays before reading Bakewell’s book, this being, really, my introduction to the idea of Montaigne as being someone or something I might like to know more about), really did not have anything near the last word about himself. Through her book, Bakewell writes out the essential thread of the story of Montaigne’s life, weaving in, as it applies to the various answers to the titular question, the reactions and readings of those who follow Montaigne in history, up through the editing and translation wars that bring his life’s story up into our contemporary world. She related his writing and his life to the French and European world in which he was immersed and also draws in classical and other historical reference points to give his work a rich and intriguing context.

But, like I said: a light touch and an engaging voice. No doubt that this could all be bone-dry reading, but in a bit over three hundred pages I feel it safe to say Bakewell advanced my knowledge of the subject without coming close to boring me to tears (as, I understand it, many works of historical explication might be likely to do). I looked forward to reading this book every day; it is likely I will read more of Bakewell’s work in the future.

That being said, I’ll end with a question: while I’ve got some books of essays lined up for further lunch time reading, I’m curious what works of nonfiction (creative nonfiction, essays, histories, otherwise) others out there might see fit to recommend? (This is the kind of question that will, or at least, will likely, or at least, might, could, possibly, affect my actual life, sometime in the next year or so. At the least, it did, the last time I ended with a similar question, from which suggestions I did, in fact, sometime soon after, read You Were Wrong, by Matthew Sharpe, a book I did devour and did like quite a bit; I still need to read Jamestown. And I will be reading Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, eventually. So.)

Initial final reaction to The Instructions by Adam Levin: or, that really certainly was one way to start the year

As if there could be such a thing as an initial final reaction to a book I’ve been reacting to steadily for the last two straight weeks: the dust has barely settled on the cover of my copy of The Instructions by Adam Levin and I know there’s conversation set to happen at some point at Counterbalance and so I’m going to try not to blow all my best material here (the bestness of my material being, as always, intra-comparative as opposed to extra-comparative) but I don’t think any of that should halt me from at least tentatively suggesting that this thousand page McSweeney’s title is essentially a good book, a better than good book, a book that no one’s taste could be cast into doubt for considering it a “great” book (“greatness” here being a relatively internal-relative concept, the book potentially being great in itself without attempting to necessarily draw direct comparisons to other “great works of literature,” though it certainly wants that, wants to be taken seriously on that level, a modern day classic in the self-making, as it were), though, personally, I might stop shy (at least for now) of affixing (any sort of) “greatness” to it, in that the dust is still settling and I’m still reacting, still reactive, still a bit taken off guard by how much I did, in fact, like this book (being quite a bit), and, well, the time of judging is no time to cast judgment. Or I’m just a puss. I don’t know. All of which said (and there being much more yet to be said, and I hope as much of it gets said as possible) my main point for now is this: if it’s the kind of book you think you might be interested in reading, then, well, it’s a book that is largely worth reading. I couldn’t fault you for not wanting to read it, or just for falling off onto the wrong side of the fence; lacking the particular nudge I received this time, I’d really rather have likely opted not to read it any time soon, just, because, well, things, but, here I am, and I read it now rather than later, and, in the end, the beginning of the rest of the life I’ll lead after I’ve read this thousand page McSweeeney’s title (a reference I drop again so I can at least tentatively admit that this book is no The Children’s Hospital though that’s a fine thing for it not to be because The Children’s Hospital was a brutal book that broke parts of my brain and heart and I couldn’t have standed to have gone through that again just yet, but, still, yet, this book, The Instructions, it works in a similar sort of sphere as The Children’s Hospital which kind of points the way toward McSweeney’s being a focal point for interesting contemporary literature about fucked-up religious things, which is, you know, cool by me), I can say that I’m glad I read this book now, and, someday, I might read it again, which, I think, is saying something.

Y2K11: So It Begins

Hey! 2010. That happened. It did. And now it’s done. I forgive it for being done! It had to happen eventually. And on this last day of my winter vacation, the day devoted to drinking a strong pot of coffee before nervously spending the rest of the day crying myself to sleep in anticipation of having to wake up before 4 pm tomorrow and, like, having to actually shower and shave for the first time since 2010, I’m really officially ready to forgive myself all the posts I didn’t get to finish. Goodbye, unwritten posts! Goodbye, incomplete thoughts! May you rest in heaven with the angels now. Yet that said I’m not quite prepared to make incredible promises about the year to come. I mean, posting wise. My TBR pile for the year is already huge. I’ve made some of those promises to myself, a big stack of fat novels I want to finally get through, a couple classics I want to re-read, stuff that will stand as the backbone of the reading year. And while I’d like to say I’m going to post about them a bit more frequently, these books, yeah, maybe not. School is still happening. I’ve been through enough optimistic beginning-of-semester stretches by this point to realize my belief that I’m going to finally crack the knack of cramming two hours into one is probably an ill-founded one. I can say I’d like to keep trying, that’s something, right? Yes? No. It’s not. But.

What I can say is I do plan on doing another handful of reviews this year, so long as the fine folks out there who let me write for them continue to let me write for them. So that’s fun. I like doing reviews. I mean, in the sense that I like getting dental work done, right after I’ve had the work done, and I can go home and eat a bunch of pudding and be like, well, that was a good thing I did. (I kid. I mean, reviews are hard. But fun hard.) And I’m currently reading The Instructions by Adam Levin, because nothing says “starting the year off with a thousand page novel” like actually starting the year with a thousand page novel. There’s a planned discussion set to begin sometime later this month over at Counterbalance, which I would link to but the Internet seems to be crying itself to sleep along with me today, so, you know, maybe later. I really wasn’t planning on reading the book any time soon, there being enough other thousand page novels on my shelves to last me a lifetime, but, I guess it did seem like a good warm-up for the year? Maybe? I don’t know. We’ll see. The first chapter was pretty good. Good. Good enough. I will read more of it.

If you’re interested, other books I’ve got lined up to read this year include:

  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It’s been ten years since I first read the book, which, just thinking about that fact, makes me sort of want to vomit. And not sort of but more like definitely. But I’ve been saying ever since that I ought to re-read it and a ten-year re-read seems like the relatively arbitrary but oddly motivating way to go about doing so. Plus, I would personally rather re-read Infinite Jest than begin to tackle The Pale King, the pieces-parts draft of his final novel that’s set to come out this year. I mean no offense to anybody who will be reading King this year, of course. Someday I imagine I will. Right now though, I’m not ready to confront the partial final remnant of a partial life.
  • Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. It has been a little over two years since I read this book, which in a personal lifetime sense is actually not that long, and which in an Internet timeline sense is about a billion years, and which in a Thomas Pynchon sense is a fractally long time (since he has actually published another book since Day came out), but, but, I’ve been yearning to re-read it ever since, and now, this year, I am going to. Probably. I have such a positive memory of reading the book that I think I need to see for myself if it was good in a just a one-off sense or if it could be the classic I think it was. Is. Plus I’m pretty out of touch with literary culture as a whole, I mean, in the sense that as someone who, having done the blogging thing on and off for a while and the reviewing thing for a little bit now probably “ought” to know a thing or two about the literary culture, but, that said, saying that I have little to no right to actually say this sort of thing, I will still say that I kind of get the sense that everyone sort of got “done” with this book already? Maybe? Like it came out and those who read it did and now it’s left for the nerds like me to think kind thoughts about it? Or something? Like, blah blah blah, obsessed with the new, high turnover, etc etc etc. Something. Modern culture, you fickle 140 character mistress. Point being, I’d like to read it again and try to talk about it some more because I think it probably remains an excellent book that people should keep reading and talking about.
  • The Recognitions by William Gaddis. My word. I’ve picked this book up a hundred times and read a paragraph or two and then I’ve put it down and then I’ve picked up something else that is made of candy, comparatively, because I’ve never felt ready to eat steak wrapped in steak on a plate of steak. This year: steak.
  • Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth. Barth is one of those authors whose entire oeuvre I’ve been planning to work through for quite some time now. I last left off with The Sot-Weed Factor in 2007, a book which mostly consumed me for a while, and now I think I’m ready to get back into the Barth groove. I mean, it will be a different sort of groove, of course–a Cold War groove, a groove I can dig. (Though to be fair this was actually the first Barth book I ever picked up and I’d started it well before I did The Floating Opera or The End of the Road but which I dropped for whatever reason made sense at the time. Here’s to fresh starts.)
  • Warlock by Oakley Hall. This is, yes, the shortest book on the pile for the year. (So far. This is hardly an all-inclusive list of books for the year. Like, yes, there will be some review titles, and yes, there will be some very short books, and yes, there will be books by women. Pinkie swear.) It’s a book I’d picked up randomly because, hey, NYRB books equal good fun. Then I reviewed this really good debut novel by Grace Krilanovich called The Orange Eats Creeps. It’s a book that has received a really gratifying amount of buzz–it’s nice to see something so weird and fun and “uh!” get so much attention. That attention included a stop by Krilanovich at Codex in which she discussed five books she’d recently read, one of which was Warlock. I don’t normally dip into the “western” genre, but that bit of serendipitous timing, coupled with the up-front blurb on the book cover by Thomas Pynchon, equals a sold me.
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I hear this book is okay. I think it made a lot of year-end blog lists in 1869?
  • Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. Speaking of really huge Russian novels. This is a recent acquisition–the kind of fat book that draws the eye then hooks into it with that little NYRB bubble on the spine before devouring it whole with its back-cover description. A WWII novel submitted for publication in 1959, summarily censored, and later smuggled out of Soviet Russia and published in the U.S. in 1980, I’m kind of imagining this is going to make for an interesting paring with War and Peace. Hunches.

All of which seems like a bloody lot of book to read in a year, and it is, especially when I plan on taking a drawing class in the spring because I have a strange desire to feel humiliated to pieces on a twice-weekly basis and an independent study in the fall because I have a strange desire to do an absolute shit-ton of crazy-work for four months, and what with the day job and all, but, at least, when physically measured with hands and fingers, this pile only measures up to half the stack of the 2010 pile, which, admittedly, was smaller than it probably ought to have been, since I got lazy on occasion in 2010. (And The Instructions is way bloody fattier than it needs to be. I think the thing is bound with a used-up Slinky.) So, you know, plenty of time for the other things I plan to read and then fail to talk about as much as I should, except for those books which I will very much talk about almost as much as they deserve, including books slated to come out this year, some of which you fill find in a list at The Millions and in a list at Reading is Breathing and in a list at Conversational Reading. (So, yes, publisher-type people: I still want to know about books you think I might want to review that might be up my alley. Drop me a line. I’ve had the most fun with reviews when I’ve picked up a book, started it, and then felt compelled to find a place to make me write about it.) Plus I might actually catch up on books from 2010 that I never got around to. (I’m looking at you, The Passage and Skippy Dies, you also not-skinny novels.)

Also I am vaguely planning other things that may begin to fold in my interest in design and visual communication work. Here’s to seeing.