How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Written by Sarah Bakewell
Review by Doug Kemp

The collections of Essays written by the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne in the latter years of the 16th century have long enthralled and entertained readers. The writer displays a wide array of eclectic learning and knowledge, and the essays (around 1200 dense pages – I have read them all!) are structured in an engagingly empiric style, providing meandering and pragmatic advice, mostly derived from classical sources, on the most troublesome yet fundamental question: how to live a satisfactory existence. This is not a formal and dry academic study of The Essays, but whilst looking at the key themes, Sarah Bakewell also writes about Montaigne himself, his time in the politically violent years of 16th-century France during the religious wars, as well as a study of how The Essays have been received, approached and read in the subsequent centuries. Like Montaigne, the author uses a down-to-earth pragmatic style that is a delight to read, while informing the reader about Montaigne and his wonderful Essays.