Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sarah Bakewell's "How to Live"

Sarah Bakewell was a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library before becoming a full-time writer, publishing her highly acclaimed biographies The Smart and The English Dane. She lives in London, where she teaches creative writing at City University and catalogues rare book collections for the National Trust.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, and reported the following:
My book How to Live is about the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, and page 99 tells the story of an occasion on which he kept changing his mind about something.

It was 1580, and his great book of personal reflections and anecdotes, Essais, was about to be published. The question was whether to include some sonnets and a politically radical treatise written by his best friend Etienne de La Boétie. La Boétie was dead – he had died of the plague some years earlier - and Montaigne wanted to commemorate him by making him a sort of centrepiece to his own work. But he was uncertain. Would La Boétie have wanted this? Might it be politically dangerous to print the treatise – which was daringly radical, exploring ways of resisting tyranny? As for the sonnets, they were now published elsewhere, so would it be right to include them?

First Montaigne put the pieces in, then he took them out. Then he put the sonnets in, but left the treatise out. Then he took the sonnets out too, and left only a brief note of his own about La Boétie and how wonderful he was.

I think Montaigne probably made the right decision, and I find his note about La Boétie’s brilliance moving, for his friend’s death had really broken his heart. Montaigne’s indecision reflects this grief, as well as a certain nervousness about his own artistic choices – something any first-time author can relate to.

Is this strange story typical of How to Live? I mostly avoid discussions of bibliographic history or textual scholarship, since I’m more interested in the living and breathing Montaigne and all the other living, breathing people who have responded to his writing. So maybe not. But in other ways it’s spot on. My book is about a man who mourned his lost friend all his life, but who used this loss to help drive his own literary energies. So it’s a story about reading and writing, and about emotion. And it’s about indecision. As Montaigne wrote, ‘Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object.’ It is never easy to make up your mind about anything, especially the things that touch your deepest feelings.

I’m a believer in the page-99 theory, by the way, and I use it myself in bookstores – though I tend to go for page 37 for some reason. It’s rarely let me down. The page might tell a story untypical of the book, but the voice and spirit of the author will be there – and with that you can’t go wrong.
Learn more about the book and author at Sarah Bakewell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue