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writing and his life to the French and European world in which he was immersed and also draws in classical and other historical reference points to give his work a rich and intriguing context.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.)

Author: Darby

...is a reader, a litblogger, a critic, a design student, a fan of typewriters, a mediocre videogamer, an amateur painter, a dayjob holder, a guy, your new BFF.

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on How To Live by Sarah Bakewell”

  1. Don’t know what you’ve read, but how about Nicholson Baker’s “U&I”? It will be one of the most entertaining pieces of nonfiction you’ll ever read, I swear. Also, any nonfiction by Geoff Dyer (especially Out of Sheer Rage) or Jenny Diski (especially Strangers on a Train) is great. Oh, and the Quest for Corvo (nice NYRB edition). Oh, and, uh, Montaigne.

  2. A handful of suggestions for you, Darby… (It’s been great getting caught up on your blog–love your take on things!)

    Annie Dillard, Annie Dillard, Annie Dillard:
    An American Childhood
    Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
    Holy the Firm
    Living by Fiction
    For the Time Being
    The Writing Life

    Favorite essay collections:
    Annie Dillard ~ Teaching A Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters
    Ralph Ellison ~ Shadow and Act
    Flannery O’Connor ~ Mystery and Manners
    Walker Percy ~ The Message in the Bottle
    E.E. Cummings ~ i: six nonlectures

    Much fun:
    Pierre Bayard (trans. Charlotte Mandell) ~ Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of The Hound of the Baskervilles
    Pierre Bayard (trans. Carol Cosman) ~ Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?: The Murderer Who Eluded Hercule Poirot and Deceived Agatha Christie

    On translation (but great for anyone interested in literature):
    Gregory Rabassa ~ If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents
    Suzanne Jill Levine ~ The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction
    Umberto Eco ~ Experiences in Translation
    William H. Gass ~ Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation

    Random good stuff:
    Francisco Goldman ~ The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?
    Janet Malcolm ~ Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice
    Janet Malcom ~ The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
    Ian Hamilton ~ In Search of J.D. Salinger
    James Longenbach ~ The Resistance to Poetry
    Brian Boyd ~ Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery
    Northrop Frye ~ Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake
    C.S. Lewis ~ The Discarded Image
    Bob Dylan ~ Chronicles, Volume One
    Louis Menand ~ The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
    Leonard Shlain ~ Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light

    Stuff on my shelves that I’m looking forward to eventually reading:
    Martin Gardner ~ The Night is Large
    Iris Murdoch ~ Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature
    William Gass ~ Fiction and the Figures of Life
    John Dewey ~ Art as Experience
    René Girard ~ To Double Business Bound: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology
    Charles Williams ~ The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante
    Gabriel Josipovici ~ The Book of God
    Susanne Langer ~ Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (huge influence on Walker Percy)
    Alberto Manguel ~ Into the Looking-Glass Wood: Essays on Books, Reading, and the World
    Blaise Pascal ~ Pensées
    Marc Robinson (ed.) ~ Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile

  3. Apologies, Darby, as this comment has nothing to do with your post here but it was the only contact info I was able to locate. Just wanted to thank you for your fantastic, precise review of Dixon’s What Is All This? Of course it means a lot that you felt my design work resonated with the work but before I saw that comment I was thrilled just to read such an eloquent synopsis of what makes Dixon brilliant. I, too, am a long-time fan of his work and I’m disappointed by how rarely he is well-reviewed (not to say positively reviewed, just written well ABOUT). I’m glad you added your voice to the mix. Best- Jacob

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