Is It Time to Revisit Montaigne?

In the frenzy of caustic political diatribe in the weeks before the vote for President in the United States, Tim Parks offers the voice of reason in his articleShould Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head? in the Book Review section of the New York Times.  

“Montaigne’s position was always that we must be extremely careful about our emotions, in particular our tendency to get emotional about ideas.  He didn’t advise neutrality, but simply that ‘we should not nail ourselves so strongly to our humors and complexions.’ To foster emotions deliberately and habitually was dangerous, because once a strong emotion had kicked in it was very difficult to find a way back.”

The rhetoric of emotional intensity has spilled over from reality show television and action packed books and movies into the political arena, a place where the calm assessment of affairs has been replaced by dyspeptic rants, brutal verbal attacks on adversaries, and “horror for the future.”  Montaigne notes: “No one is exempt from speaking nonsense – the only misfortune is to do it solemnly.”

9781590514832_p0_v1_s192x300   Rereading Sarah Bakewell’s A Life of Montaigne has immersed me into introspection – and a new appreciation for nonfiction.

 It will not stop me, however, from escaping reality and losing myself in the next book of fiction – life seems better when it’s not real all the time.  Alan Bradley has my attention now in the return of Flavia de Luce. 9780345539960_p0_v2_s192x300 



Sara Ruhl and Montaigne

How would you answer the question  “What books are currently on your night stand?” Would you be honest or try to impress?

A recent television episode of “Younger” has star Sutton Foster helping her  boss prepare to answer questions for a “By the Book” interview in the Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times.  Foster suggests classics – safe to enhance his profile.

Playwright Sara Ruhl knows how to mix humor with reality – her plays, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and “The Clean House,” had me laughing – and then I thought about what she was saying.  Her answers in “By the Book”included books I know and enjoyed, by authors Elizabeth Bishop, Katherine Mansfield, Jonathan Franzen, and Tina Fey.  But her mention



of Sarah Blakewell’s How to Live; Or, A Life of Montaigne – brought back a good memory, and the motivation to find the book and read it again. Have you read it?  One phrase I recall: How to live? Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.

Here is my review from 2011 – time for me to find the book again…

The World’s First Blogger – Montaigne

Anthony Bourdain

A chef who likes to think – or at least think about thinking.  In Kate Murphy’s New York Times interview of Anthony Bourdain, author of No Reservations and famous chef, traveler, food and people critic, Bourdain admits to reading Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  Bourdain’s comment on his reading:

“Montaigne’s essays {are} presented in a casual and contemporary way that reminds you why he is still relevant after nearly 500 years.  I got a tattoo because of that book…”

You can enjoy the book without getting a tattoo (“I suspend judgment”) or becoming an irritable cook.  Michel de Montaigne would suggest…

“No one is exempt from speaking nonsense – the only misfortune is to do it solemnly.”

Read my review of Bakewell’s book – here                                                                                       

Bourdain has a collection of essays too – reviewed here