I’d wanted to read How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer but kept putting it off. It just seemed outside of everything else I was doing. But then I was given it by a friend, read it in only a few days and was astounded by it.
First, Montaigne himself is endlessly interesting. Engaged in his world and cut off from it too. Social, friendly, loving, but introverted and solitary too. Sophisticated but common. Second, his essays are magnificent. I’ve always been put off by the very first one every time I’ve tried to read them. The form and the context were simply too distant to be casually accessible and I’ve only ever tried to read them casually. But Bakewell works through them in a way that makes them inviting and essential. I come away from this book desperate to read these essays. Finally, the history of Montaigne’s reception is more interesting than it has any right to be, and reading about it, I picked up a quick history of modern France that I was sorely lacking.
Any one of these would probably have made the book worth reading, but it offers all three and–and this is the astounding part–it offers them in a carefully but lightly and beautifully written prose that is a pleasure to read.
Reading, I couldn’t help noticing that Bakewell writes the kind of book that I wanted my dissertation to be but was unable to pull off. Memory was the ingredient that was missing and holding me back–and that in fact suggests that intensity of work was the problem: I worked too slowly, too much in the corner of my life to remember as carefully as I needed to to write what I aimed to write.
I loved this book.