Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How to Live: or, a Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

Although BHPL owns this year's National Book Critics Circle winner for biography, How to Live, I ended up buying it at Green Apple Books in San Francisco because I was running out of books to read on my trip.*

Montaigne was the mayor of Bordeaux, but he is famous for his Essays, which he began writing in 1572. Montaigne spoke only Latin as a child; he survived the plague and the religious civil wars of France; and he traveled in an age when most people didn't. Sarah Bakewell tells these and other stories from Montaigne's life, with each chapter of How to Live answering that question with examples from Montaigne's life and writing. How to Live is also a history of the Essays: the author describes them as
“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 cry of 'How did he know all that about me?'”
If you read How to Live, you'll want to read or re-read Montaigne's Essays next. BHPL owns a book of selections (made by Salvador Dali, no less) from Charles Cotton's 17th century translation of the Essays. Cotton has old-fashioned language compared to Donald Frame's 1958 translation. However, Cotton translated the essays as they were published during Montaigne's lifetime, and his translation is free online. Frame's translation - 908 pages in paperback- is based on Marie de Gournay's posthumous edition of the Essays.

*Unrelated but cool (like one of Montaigne's tangents!): check out Green Apple's photos from their recent midnight launch party for Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.

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