Amateurs Amble Through Philosophy

The only thing more fun than reading Montaigne, it seems, is reading what others say about Montaigne. (1) His admirers pop up when and where one least expects.

For example, Sarah Bakewell’s 2010 book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer was a bestseller that probably took everyone, including Bakewell, by surprise.

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And over the Christmas break, I read Michael Perry’s 2017 Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy. Perry is a Wisconsin-based writer/musician/farmer/volunteer fireman/humorist and probably two or three more slash-somethings by now.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s review nicely recaps the book and highlights one of the best things about it: how Perry’s easy and personable approach so nicely matches Montaigne’s. Just as Montaigne took his instruction and sustenance from the ancient philosophers he read and quoted, so Perry draws from Montaigne’s life and essays some essential lessons for his own life. (2)

Perry the Humorist makes himself known often with anecdotes and memories, capping sentences and paragraphs with quips aimed at the back seats. I got a bit wary sometimes, recognizing when he was winding up for a pitch. But when Perry the Writer and Perry the Man wrestle with issues of weight — relationships with family and neighbors, responsibility, bodily and emotional pain, ego, leading a life of integrity along with the costs that that decision imposes — Perry’s own essays achieve a solidity and a quiet authority. Montaigne and Perry speak for themselves, and by doing so, give voice to many others. Both men are flawed; both are always trying to do better.

Montaigne in Barn Boots is not a biography; Bakewell has done that. Perry’s book is something to me that is more interesting: an intelligent person riffing on a classic from the past to help him live better for the future, laid out for us in the style and manner of his personal patron saint. I loved it.

(1) Or what Montaigne says about himself. My own personal favorite Montaigne book is Marvin Lowenthal’s The Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne, which stitches together Montaigne’s writings from the essays, letters, and other documents, to create a chronological self-portrait that is sometimes more fun to read than the essays. Montaigne’s essays and the Tao te Ching would probably be my desert island books (but don’t ask me to pick only one translation!).

(2) And a shout-out to Perry’s bibliography of books, articles, web pages, and even Twitter feeds; I love finding out that Montaigne had a Twitter feed (@TheDailyTry, though it’s not been updated since January 2018). This is exactly the sort of motley collection of links and blog posts I love to collect when I do a deep-dive into online research. I’m looking forward to many happy hours of reading.