Earlier this year, a friend of mine asked me if I had ever heard of Montaigne. He mispronounced the name, so it took me a couple of follow-up questions to verify that he was indeed referring to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Of course I had heard of Montaigne. In my prior life as a student of French literature I had spent a semester that included a great deal of focus on his essays. I had made a mental note that, when I had gotten older, I should return to his essays. My friend had stumbled across Sarah Bakewell's book How to Live - or - A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer in German translation. My friend was quite impressed with the book and with Montaigne. He lent me the book later this year, and I finally found time to start reading earlier this week as a prelude to re-reading Les Essais. Hardly had I begun reading the book, and I started reflecting on the relationship between the Essay and Blogging. Certain that other great minds had made the comparison before me, I googled "Montaigne Blog" and came up with an article from 2010 in the Paris Review entitled What Bloggers Owe Montaigne. Not even bothering to note who the author of the article was, I plunged into an interesting history of Montaigne's impact on English and American authors and the essay form. Of particular interest was Montaigne's influence on Shakespeare and Emerson. At the very end of the article, the author dealt with the overlap of the essay with blogging. I finally looked at the author's name and realized that it was Sara Bakewell. Here is an excerpt from her article:
"These days, the Montaignean willingness to follow thoughts where they lead, and to look for communication and reflections between people, emerges in Anglophone writers from Joan Didion to Jonathan Franzen, from Annie Dillard to David Sedaris. And it flourishes most of all online, where writers reflect on their experience with more brio and experimentalism than ever before.
Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago. Montaigne, in turn, might not have expected to be remembered so long, least of all in the English language—yet he always believed that such understanding between remote eras and cultures was possible. 'Each man bears the entire form of the human condition,' he said. We are united in the very fact of our diversity, and 'this great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognize ourselves from the proper angle.' His book is such a world, and when we look into it there is no end to the strangeness and familiarity we might see."
I've just started reading the book. In spite of my initial doubts about whether I would find the "self-help format", for lack of a better description, tolerable, I have enjoyed the first three chapters and will finish the book and move on to the essays, probably in English translation.