How to Live: Book summary and reviews of How to Live by Sarah Bakewell

How to Live

Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

By Sarah Bakewell

How to Live
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2010,
    400 pages.

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Book Summary

Winner of the 2010 NBCC Biography Award

How to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love—such questions arise in most people’s lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: how do you live? How do you do the good or honorable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy?

This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Monatigne, perhaps the first truly modern individual. A nobleman, public official and wine-grower, he wrote free-roaming explorations of his thought and experience, unlike anything written before. He called them “essays,” meaning “attempts” or “tries.” Into them, he put whatever was in his head: his tastes in wine and food, his childhood memories, the way his dog’s ears twitched when it was dreaming, as well as the appalling events of the religious civil wars raging around him. The Essays was an instant bestseller and, over four hundred years later, Montaigne’s honesty and charm still draw people to him. Readers come in search of companionship, wisdom and entertainment—and in search of themselves.

This book, a spirited and singular biography, relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored. It traces his bizarre upbringing, youthful career and sexual adventures, his travels, and his friendships with the scholar and poet Étienne de La Boétie and with his adopted “daughter,” Marie de Gournay. And we also meet his readers—who for centuries have found in Montaigne an inexhaustible source of answers to the haunting question, “how to live?”

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Book Awards

  • award image National Book Critics Circle Award, 2011

Reviews

Media Reviews

"Because Montaigne’s capacious mirror still captivates many, this insightful life study will win high praise from both scholars and general readers." - Booklist

"This charming biography shuffles incidents from Montaigne's life and essays into twenty thematic chapters...Bakewell clearly relishes the anthropological anecdotes that enliven Montaigne's work, but she handles equally well both his philosophical influences and the readers and interpreters who have guided the reception of the essays." - The New Yorker

"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
 
"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

"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

"This book will have new readers excited to be acquainted to Montaigne's life and ideas, and may even stir their curiosity to read more about the ancient Greek philosophers who influenced his writing. How to Live is a great companion to Montaigne's essays, and even a great stand-alone." - San Francisco Book Review

"Starred Review. [Bakewell reveals] one of literature's enduring figures as an idiosyncratic, humane, and surprisingly modern force." - Publisher's Weekly
 
"Splendidly conceived and exquisitely written ... enormously absorbing." - Sunday Times
 
"An intellectually lively treatment of a Renaissance giant and his world." - Saturday Telegraph
 
"Like recent books on Proust, Joyce, and Austen, How to Live skillfully plucks a life-guide from the incessant flux of Montaigne's prose ... A superb, spirited introduction to the master." - The Guardian

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Sarah Bakewell was a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library before becoming a full-time writer, publishing her highly acclaimed biographies The Smart and The English Dane. She lives in London, where she teaches creative writing at City University and catalogues rare book collections for the National Trust.

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