How to Live Book Summary - How to Live Book explained in key points
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How to Live summary

Sarah Bakewell

Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

4.5 (479 ratings)
21 mins
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    How to Live
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    A Morbid Obsession.

    As a young man, Montaigne had a problem. It was making him miserable – but you wouldn’t know that if you looked at him from the outside. 

    On the surface, he seemed to be living a pretty nice life. For starters, he was a nobleman, born into a wealthy family in 1533. He had a cushy childhood, received a classical education, and then began a successful career in law and politics at the age of 24. For the next 13 years, he worked as a magistrate in the city of Bordeaux in southwestern France. 

    He also inherited a profitable winemaking business, a large chateau, and a sprawling country estate full of vineyards, about 30 miles from Bordeaux. He split his time between the estate and the city, living a double life: one urban, dedicated to public service; the other rural, dedicated to wine-growing. 

    Well, sort of. By his own admission, he was incompetent at managing the estate and neglectful of his duties. To avoid them, he’d often go horse riding instead. He spent the rest of his time visiting neighbors, socializing, and reading classical works by ancient Greek and Roman historians, poets, and philosophers. 

    But that’s where the problem began. Those ancient philosophers wrote a lot about death, and Montaigne became increasingly obsessed with the subject as he read them in his 20s. 

    The obsession grew even deeper in his 30s, as more and more of his loved ones passed away. First, his best friend died from the plague. Then, his father died, probably from complications arising from a kidney stone. Then, his younger brother died after getting hit in the head by a ball while playing a game of jeu de paume – the Renaissance-era predecessor of tennis. Then, his first child died when she was only two months old. 

    Meanwhile, people in France were keeling over left and right for all sorts of terrible reasons: famine, civil war, witch trials, smallpox – the list went on and on. Death was lurking everywhere, able to strike anyone at any time from anywhere. Montaigne’s preoccupation with it therefore seemed not only natural but rational and inescapable. With so much death around him, how could he stop thinking about it? And if he couldn’t stop thinking about it, how could he enjoy anything else in life? The idea spoiled everything, and there was no way of shaking it. 

    Or so he thought. But then something happened that would forever change his attitude toward death and give him a second lease on life. 

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    What is How to Live about?

    How to Live (2010) is both a biography of the writer Montaigne and an overview of the monumental work for which he’s famous: the Essays – a genre of writing that he invented. Along the way, it suggests some lessons we can take from his life and apply to our own.

    Who should read How to Live?

    • Students of the Stoics, Epicureans, or Skeptics who want to learn about one of their greatest prodigies 
    • Fans of biographies about writers and thinkers 
    • Anyone who wants to know more about the life and works of Montaigne

    About the Author

    Sarah Bakewell is a British non-fiction writer who focuses on the lives of philosophers, writers, and adventurers. Her other works include At the Existentialist Café and The English Dane. In 2018, she won the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize in non-fiction. 

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