Last week (May 17th), the National Post published an excerpt from Sarah Bakewell’s, How to Live (Vintage, 2010). The beginning was disconcerting for a brand new blogger to read: “The 21st century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, … [etc.] brings up thousands of individuals, fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention.
They go on about themselves…they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of the self.” I don’t know what prompted me to keep reading except the feeling, perhaps, that there had to be a turn. And sure enough there was: “This idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not existed forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official and wine-grower who lived in the Perigord area of south-western France from 1533 to 1592.
Montaigne wrote 107 essays in which he “jotted down whatever was going through his head when he picked up his pen, capturing encounters and states of mind as they happened. He used these experiences as the basis for asking himself questions, above all the big question that fascinated him as it did many of his contemporaries. Although it is not quite grammatical in English, it can be phrased in three simple words: “How to live?” Bakewell explains that this is not the same as the ethical question, “How should one live?” but rather focuses on what people actually do as they attempt to live “a good life.”
Answering “How to live?” splintered into ” a myriad of other pragmatic questions.” One that he asked that stood out for me was “What do you say to your dog when he wants to go out and play, while you want to stay at your desk writing your book?” In my case I would rephrase it as follows: What do you say to your dog when she wants to go out and play, while you are up to your eyeballs in a fresh palette of paint—acrylic or oil?
Montaigne proceeded to answer these questions by telling what he did in each case, providing all the details, all the “sensations that are harder to capture in words, …He even writes about the sheer feeling of being alive.” And the result of this accumulated detail is a self-portrait “so vivid that it practically gets up off the page and sits down next to you to read over your shoulder.” And then another turn: the result of having created such a vivid self-portrait is that each reader is able to see him or herself in the portrait—The journalist Bernard Levin, in 1991, said, “I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: ‘How did he know all that about me?’
I can’t wait to read Bakewell’s book. …And I feel much better already about blogging.