Monday, September 2, 2019


That should be an arresting title for anyone to read today on this day of No Labor. Several summers ago, when we were vacationing near Highlands, North Carolina, I found a book about the life of Montaigne entitled How to Live in a bookstore there. This morning, when folks on The Mountain at Sewanee are preparing for cook-outs, “grilling” (rather than “having a barbecue” as we say in Louisiana), I woke up thinking about this book and about how much I loved the art of essay writing. Montaigne was, of course, the Renaissance giant in this genre, but when I was enjoying North Carolina one hot summer, he seemed to especially “speak to my condition” as the Quakers say. 

So, instead of planning a cook-out or even a cook-in, or doing Monday chores, I sat down to read How to Live or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell whose work is billed as a book “in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.” Although the chapter titles in this volume differ from some of Montaigne’s other free-floating pieces; e.g. “Of Smells,” ‘Of Thumbs,” “How our Mind Hinders Itself,” ”Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes,” he manages to impart weightier life guides in 107 essays but he doesn’t really try to teach readers anything. Author Bakewell says that he was less interested in what people ought to do than in what they did. And therein lies his charm.

So this Labor Day, I again open the book mentioned above and begin to ponder some question/answer type subjects contained in Ms. Bakewell’s book. Here’re a few chapter titles that set me to pondering:

Q. How to Live? A. Don’t Worry About Death

Q. How to Live? A. Pay Attention

Q.How to Live? A. Question Everything

Q. How to Live? A. Keep A Private Room Behind the Shop (Or, as Virginia Woolf advises: Get A Room of Your Own)

Q. How to Live? A. Live Temperately

Q. How to Live? A. Guard Your Humanity.

Q. How to Live? A. Do a Good Job But Not Too Good A Job

Q. How to Live? (And I love this one) A. Philosophize Only By Accident (And I predict that Facebook would lose a lot of its writers if they followed this path.)

Q. How to Live? A. Give Up Control

Q. How to Live? A. Be Ordinary and Imperfect

These questions and answers were only some of the Questions/Answers in this illuminating volume, but a reading of the essays made me less likely to engage in any labor this holiday when one of the questions is: “How to Live? A. Wake From the Sleep of Habit.”

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