I remember reading and enjoying Montaigne's essays in high school French class. A lot of the Stoicism works I've been reading recently referenced Montaigne's essays, so I figured I'd revisit them again by reading How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.
She took an interesting spin on Montaigne by explaining how he was the first writer to write about his own inner thoughts and experiences and what it meant to be alive. This was something new for his time, so you could say he was like the first blogger (with a fountain quill). He wrote about himself so others could see themselves in him and understand humanity overall. He
dealt with with his own public issues by writing about his private life and wrote about commonplace things with simple titles, drawing lessons from everything around him. He also read a lot about others and tried to learn from cultures very different from him, which is very rare for someone living in the 16th century.
I thought the book was alright, but I found it to be too much about history and background and less about the essays themselves. Like Montaigne, the author of this book would frequently change the subject and write about things unrelated to each chapter's title (maybe that was on purpose to demonstrate directly Montaigne's styles). I would have preferred more discussion of specific essays and the lessons within them and deeper discussion of the title question, "how to live."
I finally got a chance to read The Fish That Ate The Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King by Rich Cohen, which Ryan Holiday mentioned a few times in his emails and posts. It was AWESOME.
It was such a fascinating rags to riches story about a Russian Jewish immigrant to America who through hard work and a detail-oriented, reality-based perspective built successful businesses. It was incredible to read how he shaped the world around him to meet his goals: overthrowing governments so they would not mess with his business, buying the same piece of land from two disputing owners to avoid bureaucracy and lawyers, and helping to create and protect the Israeli state through the guise of his banana business. It was also super interesting for me to hear about his life in New Orleans and his impact on the city, having visited NOLA a couple years ago for the first time.
This is not a book about bananas or pirates; it's a book about hard work, ingenuity, Jewish chutzpah, and the unwavering belief in one's own agency in the face of obstacles of any size.
I had a great time hosting Ryan Holiday for an Author Talk on his new book The Obstacle is the Way at Google. We talked about reading, media manipulation, Stoicism, entrepreneurship, and basically how to be an all around awesome person while getting through the requisite troubles in life. Ryan was humble and engaging, and many in the audience told me they were quite inspired by the talk.