How to live? Read a lot, forget most of what you’ve read, and be slow-witted! How do you make peace with the fact of death? How do you get over loss? How best to deal with friends and enemies? No, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live is not a self-help book, but an engaging and humorous biography of Michel de Montaigne infused with a stimulating philosophy lesson. The question of how to live well was just as pertinent in the sixteenth century, as it is today and brought Michel de Montaigne to lay the groundwork for a new literary genre: the essay – attempt or trial. In his writing he led his mind wander freely, discussing everything from the most mundane to the most profound, current affairs and ancient riddles. In How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer is more than a biography. Sarah Bakewell takes the reader on a journey to political and social Europe of the Renaissance, providing the historic context to read Montaigne in and introducing us to his contemporaries and inspirations. She dissects Montaigne’s philosophy and the schools of thought it originates in, and presents them effortlessly to the reader.
How to Live is the perfect companion piece to the Essays, that read brilliantly are gently thought-provoking, but lack an explanation of the context they originate in. True, many of the essays are incredibly timeless in their musings and outlook, but others will benefit from a deeper knowledge of Montaigne’s life and the times that shaped him. Just as Montaigne seems to have been a fascinating, humorous, and charming individual, Bakewell’s account of his life is far from dry. Endearing anecdotes and surprising facts make this book a pleasure to read in its own right. At the Existentialist Café by Bakewell was one of my favourite reads of 2020, and I hope there will be more of her delightful depictions of philosophers and there time.