How to LiveSarah Bakewell

Though I have abandoned academic publishing, I still remain, for better or for worse, fascinated by the world of ideas, and have longed to find authors who share my passion and can translate the most complex philosophical thoughts in ways that speak directly to the general public. This takes talent as well as a particular turn of mind. Brilliant professors can’t do it because they always project onto their readers a knowledge they don’t have. For them everyday experience is part and parcel of the philosophy they teach and the books they read. They can’t identify with honest ignorance, and don’t have the faintest memory of how it felt to live and think outside their intellectual frame of reference. For them the thought of a tabula rasa upon which to build an intellectual biography of Michel de Montaigne would be a nightmare. Not so for Sarah Bakewell! She seems to understand better than most people how it feels to be baffled by the unknown. She also understands that she can take nothing for granted if she is to write a compelling story—one that deals with the Stoics, the Sophists, the Skeptics, French history of the sixteenth century, the war of religions, and, of course, Montaigne’s essays, which are as elusive and contradictory as the Bible. But how does she do this? Since I am, after all, a shrink, I couldn’t resist wondering if there was something in her life experience that gave her this unusual ability to identify with her anxious readers, who find it difficult to admit, even to themselves, that they know next to nothing about these subjects.

When I spoke to Sarah about this she told me a little bit about her childhood and how her experiences have shaped the way she sees the world and approaches life:

“I grew up traveling all over the place with my parents, on the hippie trail or in the back of their car—a very unconventional childhood, not unlike Montaigne’s! (Though I didn’t grow up speaking Latin as he did.) A lot of my childhood was spent traveling and seeing the world in unusual ways, and meeting some extraordinary people, rather than being in school following a curriculum. I think that has made me a bit reluctant to fit into conventions—I like to write about what interests me, in a way that interests me.”

It did not surprise me that Sarah studied philosophy, since after such a turbulent beginning she surely wanted to figure out how to fit her experiences into a system of thought. She chose Heidegger, the hardest philosopher to crack. I know this firsthand since Lacan is so indebted to him. If Sarah can explain Heidegger to herself, no other challenge can faze her.

Then she gave me another clue. After school, she worked in bookstores for many years. Aren’t bookstores the perfect place to learn how to think the way passionate readers think? But there is much more to Sarah’s talent than her biography. She works extremely hard at making the complex accessible and delicious. As she explained to me, “I was also very tough with myself about stripping the book down to what was essential, so it didn’t get bogged down. Knowing the structure would be complex, I was scared of it getting confusing, so I revised endlessly and took out LOADS of stuff that would have cluttered it up too much.” But then there is the pleasure principle, too. Sarah applies to herself what she has learned from Montaigne: to find pleasure in life’s trifles and not to take herself too seriously. For her, humor goes hand in hand with scholarship.

“Perhaps it makes a difference that I have come into this primarily as an enthusiastic reader, rather than an academic. I consider myself an amateur of lots of things. I try to write the books I would like to read, too!”

–Judith Gurewich, Publisher