The Jolly Librarian Considers How To Live

Well, I’m not going to tell you how to live exactly, but I am going to recommend How to Live or A Life of Montaigne: In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.

Oh dear, I can see you now, shaking your head and muttering, “Jolly Librarian, I remember hearing the name in some world lit class years ago. Didn’t he live in the 16th century or something? And wasn’t he French? Why should I care?”

Of course, this is the paradox for all literary biographies. The plus side is that there is a built-in audience. I mean I’ve read three biographies of  Charles Dickens, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm when I heard another was coming out this year. But how does an author reach out beyond the groupies of a particular literary figure?

Well, besides having a great title, which How to Live surely is, there are two ways. One is to have a fascinating subject. The other is to be a sociable, engaging writer. Bakewell has both things going for her.

It’s hard not to like Montaigne (although both the Catholic Church and his own country managed it for a few centuries). He confessed to laziness. He stops writing to play with his cat. He is cheerful in a century when there’s not much to be cheerful about in France, but also realistic. He is a man who understands that happiness comes in small things. And, as Bakewell points out,  the Essays “is much more than a book. It is a centuries-long conversation between Montaigne and all those who have got to know him: a conversation which changes through history, while starting out afresh almost every time with that ‘How did he know all that about me?'”

Bakewell is as entertaining as her subject. She has that British dry wit and an eye for the humorous and incongruous and pokes gentle fun at some of the characters who show up in the history of  the Essays. She tells of the reaction of one Romantic poet to Montaigne: First he hero-worshipped him and kept the Essays handy at all times. But then he turned against him. “He explained to a correspondent that he had only been able to love the Essays when he was young–that is, about nine months earlier, when he first began to enthuse about the book in his letters. Now, at twenty-one, he had been weathered by pain, and found Montaigne too cool and measured . . . For now, the essayist’s sense of moderation made him feel positively ill.”

Okay, I’m going to stop rambling myself. Let me just assure spending a few hours with Montaigne, his readers through history, and Sarah Bakewell will be an instructive and entertaining use of your time. And, yes, you may get a few ideas on how to live.

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