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99 of 103 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There's nothing new under the sun
Montaigne's collected essays is one of the best "dipping" books you can get. Although philosophical they are written with a lightness of touch that make them as accessible a set of treatises as you will get and as valid today as they were when they were written. Sarah Bakewell takes some of these essays and relates them to modern - and historical - life whilst also...
Published on 27 Jan 2010 by Big Jim

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Workmanlike but somewhat frustrating
I enjoyed Ms. Bakewell's book, which enhanced my previously minimal knowledge of Montaigne, though I thought the book workmanlike, rather than worthy of the praise offered by some readers. It cannot be easy to write a biography of anyone whose ideas are more significant than his/her actions, and Montaigne must fall into this category. Presumably there are always...
Published on 13 Oct 2011 by TR


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99 of 103 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There's nothing new under the sun, 27 Jan 2010
By 
Big Jim "Big Jim" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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Montaigne's collected essays is one of the best "dipping" books you can get. Although philosophical they are written with a lightness of touch that make them as accessible a set of treatises as you will get and as valid today as they were when they were written. Sarah Bakewell takes some of these essays and relates them to modern - and historical - life whilst also providing us with a biography of Montaigne and a picture of his times as well.

This book is an immense achievement, thoroughly enjoyable,and in no way "difficult" so give it a go if you are in any way interested in the human condition.

It has quite encouraged me to dust down that old volume of essays and have another "dip" or two.
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50 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gloriously accessible reintroduction to Montaigne, 21 Mar 2010
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Oh how I wish this book had been around when I was a university student reading Montaigne! Sarah Bakewell brings the reader on a delightful journey of exploration around this Renaissance giant and his world. She cheekily adopts Montaigne's own meandering structure, freeing herself from biographical convention. Instead, she explores Montaigne's life and thought through 20 "How to" chapters - "How to live: see the world", "How to live: use little tricks", and so on. That Montaigne lends himself to such a contemporary structure gives some idea of how completely ground-breaking his 'Essais' were. Their free-flowing, self exploratory style were Europe's first example of, as Bakewell puts it, "writing about oneself in order to create a mirror in which other people recognise their own humanity". She does him justice, and the apparent informality of her approach is deceptive. She effortlessly contextualises the man in his time and place, evoking the life of a provincial nobleman living amid the seething restlessness of a France at war with itself over religion. Bakewell's book sent me flying back to my old copy of the `Essais' - there can be no greater endorsement of an effective biography!
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80 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The first blogger...and he loved his cat too, 2 Feb 2010
By 
J. Coulton "Julia Coulton" (Manchester, UK) - See all my reviews
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Two weeks ago I hadn't even heard of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne - now, thanks to an obvious labour of love by Sarah Bakewell, I feel that I know him and like him, very well indeed. Montaigne appears to have been the first blogger, even before computers were invented. He was a Renaissance writer, who was also a magistrate and later major in his native Bordeaux, who retired to his family vineyard to write about life in general, and nothing in particular. In doing so he gained an army of fans, got his books banned by the Catholic Church in France, and had a jolly good time along the way.

Montaigne has won esteemed fans across the ages including the impressive collective minds of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Voltaire; Virginia Woolf; and Bernard Levin. Now that is a list of heavyweight thinkers if ever there was one. But what is all the fuss about? Well Montaigne was the first write to put down on record exactly what he thought about everyday aspects of his life, and what he thought about them. A veritable latter day Bridget Jones without the angst. He invented the `stream of consciousness' long before the term itself was coined. As Sarah Bakewell observes, `most of his thought consists of a series of realisations that life is not as simple as he has just made it out to be.'

His personal epiphany seems to have come with a near death experience when still a young man, when to outward observers he was in so much pain he was trying to rip his chest open with his bare hands; but to Montaigne himself he was transported to ecstasies of delight internally. He seems never to have taken life at face value again, but been keen to live each day as it comes, and to take each one by the scruff of the neck.

And I must confess he got my vote totally when I read about his relationship with his cat, where he tries to imagine how it must be for her to regard him, instead of just viewing the world through his own human eyes. `When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?' he wonders. He ponders in his famous `Essays' on what the world is like for all creatures through their own eyes, an almost revolutionary concept in sixteenth century Europe.

Bakewell brings Montaigne to life in this absorbing and delightful book. She affectionately writes about him as if he were also a modern day man with modern day failings. `He was the sort of man who would today keep himself busy with DIY work, and probably leave half of it unfinished.' But he did have depths of emotion that coloured his whole view of the world, such as the deep friendship with his friend poet Étienne de La Boétie, and his utter desperation at his early death. He explains their love for one another by simply saying: `"Because it was him. Because it was me."

Montaigne is not afraid to write how he feels about the minutiae of life, rather than about what he has achieved - a radical concept for his day. And his skill at engaging his readers is captured by a quote from Bernard Levin, who remarked: `I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: "How did he know all that about me?"'

And I defy any reader of Sarah Bakewell's brilliant new biography not to want to read Montaigne's `Essays' as a result - I will certainly be doing so very soon.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The stuff of everyday life turned into pearls of wisdom, 4 Mar 2010
By 
A Common Reader "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
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Sarah Bakewell has provided me with a highly accessible book of wisdom in How to Live - A life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. The added value of her book is that she has extracted the core of Montaigne's thought but set it in the context of a very readable biography, containing not just the story of his life, but also the historical context in which he lived.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) had a successful career as a Counselor in the Bordeaux Parliament and in recognition of his services was awarded the highest honour of the French nobility. However, he tired of public life and at the age of 38 retired to his Chateau to live a life of solitude among the 1500 books in his library, where he began work on his Essays.

Sarah Bakewell has somehow taken the 16th century material of the Essays and has distilled them into a very readable book for the 21st century. Understanding that few people have the time to wander through the 1000 page original, she had summarised Montaignes messages in 20 chapters, with titles such as:

* How to Live - Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow witted,
* How to Live - Survive love and loss
* How to Live - Wake from the sleep of habit
* How to Live - Reflect on everything, regret nothing.

In each of these chapters, she takes a free-ranging journey through Montaigne's life, providing biographical material which explains how he arrived at his conclusions, and also showing what people down the centuries have made of the essays.

This book confirms my belief that the best place to learn the lessons of life is in the everyday. There is enough material in daily "stuff" to provide a lifetime of philosophy, but few people actually reflect on the circumstances of their life and what happens to them. I am grateful to Sarah Bakewell for writing this fascinating introduction to Montaigne. I for one was inspired to get hold of the Complete Essays and it sits on my bedside table ready to be dipped into whenever the mood takes me.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Crooked Line From Montaigne To Orwell, 13 Feb 2010
I decided to buy this book after hearing the author on Radio 4's Start The Week. The presenter, Andrew Marr, said it was his favourite book of the year so far, and its easy to see why. Its stylishly written and packed with interesting ideas, thought provoking historical and cultural insights and it has a tremendous empathy for its subject. As other reviewers have said, Montaigne does seem to be a writer well-suited to our age, sometimes credited with inventing the stream of consciousness technique pioneered by Virginia Woolf, and brought to what many consider its highest form of expression by James Joyce. Certainly when Montaigne wrote, `If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions', I felt he spoke to me across the centuries, as have so many others.

Among the many fascinating aspects of this book, one that particularly interested me was how while he fell out of favour in France in the seventeenth century, where literature became more formal and constrained, his influence on English writers grew, spawning many books with the word essays in their title. Among these were efforts with such wonderful titles as `Of Alehouses' and `Of the Observations and Use of Things.' I like to think that there's some kind of crooked line running from Montaigne right through to Orwell, who wrote essays about how to make the perfect cup of tea, saucy seaside postcards, a comparison of the pleasures offered by books and cigarettes, and, famously, `Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.' A splendid, thought provoking book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eudaimonia and Ataraxia, as the Greeks used to say, human flourishing and balance..., 6 May 2011
By 
John P. Jones III (Albuquerque, NM, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (Paperback)
...and they probably still do. It is these two concepts that are essential for "the good life." Sarah Bakewell undertook a five year "immersion course" in the life and times of the French writer, Michel Montaigne, and his magnum opus, the "Essays." She called it her "voluntary servitude," a reference to an important work by Montaigne's best friend, Etienne La Boetie. The title of Bakewell's book is derived from a comment made by Gustave Flaubert on the best way to approach Montaigne: not for amusement or strict instruction, but in order to live. The result of Bakewell's "servitude" is a book that transcends easy compartmentalization. It is biography, history, philosophy, literary criticism, accomplished with flashes of wit and insight for the modern reader, so that we might all have a better understanding of a man who has now been dead for over five centuries, as well as ourselves.

Montaigne was born, spent the vast majority of his life, and died on his family's estate, near the Dordogne River, some 25 miles east of Bordeaux. His life spanned the latter part of the 16th Century, from 1533 to 1592. The Renaissance, the awaking from the "Dark Ages," was still flourishing. Venice and Rome were the cultural centers of the world. France was ruled by weak kings, and racked by religious wars. Montaigne was active in political life, serving two terms as mayor of Bordeaux. He was also an advisor to the Kings (and their mistresses!) And he took the French equivalent of "the Grand Tour," extensive travels through Germany, Switzerland and Italy. His legacy to us is the "Essays," from the French verb, "essayer," to try, and it is a literary form that he invented, and has been frequently emulated, particularly by the English. Bakewell traces the impact of the three principal Greek philosophical schools, the Epicureans, the Skeptics, and the Stoics on Montaigne's outlook. The two most influential writers of the ancient world for Montaigne were Seneca and Plutarch.

The "Essays" themselves are like many a Holy Book, the Bible, Koran and Talmud. They deal with the essential questions of life, as well as the trivia. They are many things to many people, and are interpreted one way, and then another. In the next century after the "Essays" publication, both literary and philosophical "giants," Blasé Pascal and Rene Descartes, disliked them, from different perspectives. The Catholic Church first loved them, since Montaigne, at least nominally, fully accepted the Church's authority (and once even kissed the Pope's feet!). Yet, some 80 years after his death, they were placed on the "Index of Forbidden Books," where they would rest for 180 years. Later still, the "Essays" had to be bowdlerized to meet the sensibilities of late 19th Century English literary standards. Of the various reactions reported by Bakewell, I found that of the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig to be the most revealing. He was a young man in turn-of-the-century Vienna, a "center of the world," of sorts, and later saw his entire world crumble with the rise of Nazism. He died in exile, of his own hand, in Brazil, in 1942. Bakewell reports that "...the book that had once seemed stuffy and irrelevant now spoke to him with directness and intimacy, as if it were written for him alone, or perhaps for his whole generation."

Of critical interest, particularly in light of today's headlines about the revolution in Egypt, is the work of La Boetie, entitled "On Voluntary Servitude" (which Bakewell speculates may have been written by Montaigne.) The central theme concerns why the masses "take it" so long, allowing themselves to be dominated by the few. The Egyptians finally said "Enough," after 30 years. Will any Western countries follow suit?

There is that ribald facet to the Essays. He has a unique way of expressing that a woman's participation might not be fully enthusiastic, as though she was firing on only one cylinder. His observations including himself, rather remarkably wondering about certain diminutive aspects. No Norman Mailer, he. In terms of marital bliss, consider: "Wives always have a proclivity for disagreeing with their husbands...they seize with both hands every pretext to go contrary to them." Is that a five century earlier version of that profound philosophical question: "If a husband speaks in the forest, and no one hears him, is he still wrong"?

The French wars of religion can certainly speak to us today. Bakewell has a fanatical Catholic group issuing a "fatwa," and a contemporary demonologist of the 16th century, Jean Bodin, could have been an inspiration for Dick Cheney: "Witchcraft was so serious, and so hard to detect using normal methods of proof, that society could not afford to adhere too much to legal tidiness and normal procedures." Regrettably, Bakewell does not report Voltaire's comment about how few witches there were now since we stopped burning them.

The author has an excellent chapter on Marie Le Jars de Gournay, who would become Montaigne's editor, publicist and adopted daughter. She was also one a very early feminist. This chapter segues into a discussion of the varying extant versions of the "Essays," and much on the merits, and primarily, the demerits of literary criticism (a lot of people sure can squabble, with a certainty of their version of Montaigne's meaning). Before purchasing a copy of Montaigne's work, this section alone is essential reading. The author even gives an Amazon URL address in the Notes at the end of the book.

Overall, Bakewell used her five years of "servitude" well, and has produced a superlative account of Montaigne's life and work. 5-stars plus.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on February 16, 2011)
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read, 28 April 2011
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hiljean (Wiltshire, England) - See all my reviews
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I studied Montaigne's Essays at university and was fortunate in having an excellent tutor and in being a mature student, which perhaps gave me the experience to appreciate how extraordinary and fascinating the Essays are. This wonderful book has only added to my respect for the man and his work and has done what all good literary biographies should do - encouraged me to go back and read the Essays again.

As other reviewers have pointed out, Bakewell's approach is almost as unconventional as Montaigne's, but there is method and chronology in the way she has presented her findings and what comes across very clearly is her admiration for his work with an enthusiasm that is contagious.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has read any part of the Essays, and to anyone thinking of doing so as this would make a useful handbook and guide.

One minor criticism: I would have preferred captions for each picture rather than a list of illustrations at the end of the book which I had to keep flicking forward to in order to find out what I was looking at! Otherwise a witty, well-written and beautifully presented book, and one I was sorry to finish. I am sure I shall be re-reading it in the not-too-distant future.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More than Montaigne ..., 22 Aug 2011
By 
Mr. M. Brady (Hertfordshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (Paperback)
The title of Sarah Bakewell's book entitled "How to Live?" does the book a half-justice. Beyond elucidating Montaigne's work, she gives us so much more. She presents the historical context: the religous wars (Huguenots, Bartholomews Day Massacre, Edict of Nantes); discoveries in South America (Tupinimbas in Rouen, the failure of French colonies in South America); monarchs of the time (Henri III and Henri of Navarre (IV)); then subsequent key views and comments on the essays (critcisms from Descartes and Pascal, the influence upon Rousseau, and much more favourable commentary from Nietzsche).

We have a commentary on the difficult political situation Montaigne was dealing with, and riveting detail of the role of Madame De Gournay. As such the author skillfully educates and enthralls us as she ties in well known figures in a pleasing narrative. Thank-you Sarah Bakewell.

(p.s. In Sarah Bakewell Michael Montaigne has a disciple in the mould of Marie de Gournay.)
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 14 Sep 2012
This review is from: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (Paperback)
This book is well-researched and intellectually stimulating. The author takes the reader on a wonderful journey. Philosophical theories, religious wars, historical setting, emotions, family losses, complex personalities and outbreaks of pandemics are all blended together to offer an accurate and unique painting of the life of Montaigne. The pace of the book is perfect. Important episodes, which had triggered strong emotions and forged the character of Montaigne, are rich in details. It is a highly enjoyable book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Workmanlike but somewhat frustrating, 13 Oct 2011
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This review is from: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (Paperback)
I enjoyed Ms. Bakewell's book, which enhanced my previously minimal knowledge of Montaigne, though I thought the book workmanlike, rather than worthy of the praise offered by some readers. It cannot be easy to write a biography of anyone whose ideas are more significant than his/her actions, and Montaigne must fall into this category. Presumably there are always difficulties in weaving the two strands together and doing justice to both. However, I was left frustrated on two main counts. Firstly, the episodic account of the life bred incoherence, and left many questions unanswered. As examples, why did Montaigne suddenly become a philosopher and writer, and how did he find an audience, apparently effortlessly? How did he metamorphose into the confidante of Kings and Queens? Secondly, I was left with little impression of the depth of his thinking; was he the world's first agony aunt or a truly great and original philosopher?
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