No sooner had essays and novels emerged as popular literary forms in seventeenth-century Europe than readers came to seek in them the kinds of spiritual and practical guidance they had always found in more overtly philosophical works like Ecclesiastes and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The eighteenth-century novelist Samuel Richardson was certainly aware of this when he extracted what he called “moral and instructive sentiments, maxims, cautions, and reflexions” from his own novels and published them as a separate volume. The desire to distill wisdom from literature is still with us, albeit with a contemporary self-help bent. Consider William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Both books take well-known literary texts and use them to show how the reader might learn to lead a better life, though the authors’ tactics—and degrees of success—differ as profoundly as their destinations.
A Columbia Ph.D. and former Yale faculty member, Deresiewicz has positioned himself as a polemicist bent on exposing (to borrow the title of his widely discussed 2008 essay in the American Scholar) “the disadvantages of an elite education.” There he insists that Yale and its peers “forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers,” observing that there’s now no place at such schools for the searchers and inquiring minds that educational institutions might once have welcomed. Deresiewicz confidently embraces, in other words, the narrative of decline that structures so many accounts of contemporary—well, fill in the blank: education, literacy, morality, youth itself.
Like that essay, A Jane Austen Education has the feel of a mission statement. It is, in part, a recantation of the elitism and intellectual mandarinism that once led the youthful Deresiewicz to prefer Conrad and Joyce to Austen and Charlotte Brontė, a preference he joyfully abandoned when the wisdom of Austen’s novels broke through his knuckleheaded snobbery. Though initially contemptuous of Austen, Deresiewicz has a revelation when reading Emma, noticing the ways in which the novel exposes the title character’s teasing of the elderly Miss Bates as culpably cruel rather than humorously witty (the takeaway: Being smart and dismissive is not necessarily good). Transformed by this reading experience, Deresiewicz finds in each of Austen’s novels another life lesson, sometimes banal in summary. We learn more when we are wrong than when we are right (Pride and Prejudice). And: To possess wealth and power and personal charisma is not, finally, a guarantee of happiness (Mansfield Park).
Among practitioners of the genre of author-as-life-coach, Alain de Botton might be anointed the patron saint. His How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) mined the French novelist’s In Search of Lost Time for lessons about “How to Love Life” and “How to Be Happy in Love,” a potentially narcissistic enterprise (if Proust really can change my life, why dally with de Botton?) that threatened to turn Proust’s great novel into a chocolate box of digestible maxims. More earnest than de Botton, Deresiewicz doesn’t quite find a way to justify his exhaustive summaries of Austen’s plots, and he often writes better here about life than about literature, as for instance when he narrates his own rescue, by the late Columbia professor Karl Kroeber, from a life straight out of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. Kroeber is described with loving vividness as “the youngest old person” Deresiewicz had ever met; he attributes to his mentor a mode of operating that involved “stripping the paint off our brains” and “teaching us to approach the world with curiosity and humility rather than the professional certainty we were all trying so hard to cultivate.” This toppling of certainties—the valuing of what we don’t know as much as or more than what we do—leads to Deresiewicz’s Damascene moment: He finally stops thinking of teaching as the transmission of material from his own mind to the minds of his students and reconceives it as “an opportunity to incite them to discover the powers that were waiting, unborn, within them, and in doing so take both themselves and me by surprise.”
By treating Austen primarily as a life guide and reading her novels as catalysts to self-actualization, though, Deresiewicz renders her books depressingly instrumental. Dwelling on the ethical content that can be extracted from Austen’s work, as well as on the ways reading might foster critical practices such as self-questioning and intellectual exploration, he arrives at an “Austen” whose name serves merely as shorthand for something like “grown-up moral standards and good values,” a crude simplification of a body of work as notable for its obliquities, ironies, and omissions as for the advice that might be inferred from its pages.
A letter Deresiewicz writes to a friend whose drinking has damaged their relationship leads to that friend later thanking him for having contributed to his having sought out AA and gotten sober: “Few things had ever felt better or made me prouder,” Deresiewicz remarks. “But as I knew perfectly well, that letter had a coauthor, and it was Austen.” All he means to say is that he wouldn’t have become a person capable of writing such a letter if he had never read Austen: surely a needlessly self-scourging hypothetical. Elsewhere he observes, of the woman who would become his wife (his marriage is the happy sequel to a string of relationships doomed by false expectations, lack of self-knowledge, and a lethal combination of cockiness and deep insecurity), that what saved him during their fights “were two things that I had learned from Austen: that my girlfriend’s perspective was just as valid as mine, however much it killed me in the middle of an argument to acknowledge it, and that if I had done something wrong, then allowing myself to recognize as much—no matter how awful it was to admit it, no matter how humiliating it was to have to lose a fight in which I had invested so much ego—was ultimately going to be good for me.” But what’s good for Deresiewicz is not much good for the reader in search of a fresh account of what Austen does in her novels. There is something almost degrading in taking the writer so strenuously as ethicist rather than stylist or formal innovator, and I wished at times for the arrival of a blithe, willfully mandarin formalism to puncture and perplex the arc of moral uplift, or else for some stringent, more skeptical set of reflections on what it means to argue that literature should help us discern, in the phrase of the book’s subtitle, “the things that really matter.”
While Sarah Bakewell shares Deresiewicz’s premise of finding in literature a guide to life, her way is eased by the framing of How to Live as a biography of Montaigne rather than a memoir of her own development, and she makes a better intellectual case for what ethical and spiritual guidance literature may offer. Montaigne’s essays grapple explicitly and repeatedly with the question of how to live, and his own resolutely secular framework, his idiosyncrasies, and his fondness for self-questioning inoculate even his most passionate readers against any temptation to hagiography. The acknowledgments of How to Live give us a glimpse of Bakewell twenty years ago in Budapest, desperate enough for something to read on a train that she “took a chance on a cheap Essays translation in a secondhand shop” (it was the only English-language book they had). The education the Essays bestowed on her is implicit rather than explicit: She mercifully doesn’t link specific moments of her personal development to passages in Montaigne, but her practices of inquiry owe much to Montaigne’s own ruminative style.
Having liberated herself from the exhaustively chronological approach of the traditional biography, with its procedural commitment to following the subject from birth to death, Bakewell selects and juxtaposes incidents from Montaigne’s travels, his political career, and his essays. Her title, How to Live, literally receives twenty different attempted answers, some of them serious (“Don’t worry about death,” “Survive love and loss”) and others more flippant (“Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted”); each piece of advice offered by Montaigne—question everything, wake from the sleep of habit—is framed within a richly detailed account both of his intellectual and political life and of the ways he would come to be read by later generations. She also situates Montaigne’s essays, many of them evocatively described, in the context of late-sixteenth-century French history, which has the mesmerizing appeal of a violent fantasy or historical novel (think George R. R. Martin or Dorothy Dunnett), particularly when it comes to the massacres that followed the marriage of the Protestant Henri de Navarre to the Catholic Marguerite de Valois in 1572.
Montaigne’s resolute stoicism—his often-expressed preference for temperance, moderation, and indolence over passionate commitments and reckless emotionalism—was a great stumbling block for readers in the age of European Romanticism, but it extrapolates well to the how-to mode. Montaigne largely invented the notion that one might write about oneself “to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity,” Bakewell points out, initiating “a literary tradition of close inward observation that is now so familiar that it is hard to remember that it is a tradition.”
Bakewell’s own strengths as an intellectual and cultural historian especially shine through in an account of Montaigne’s indebtedness to classical Greek thought, which emphasizes his attraction to an essentially Stoic model of eudaimonia (happiness) achieved by way of ataraxia, the freedom from care. Bakewell’s felicity is to be deeply concerned with her subject while retaining precisely the supple quality of thought that Deresiewicz’s book praises but does not possess. Bakewell is Montaigne’s passionate admirer, his devoted reader and rereader, and his enthusiastic biographer. But she is never his disciple, and her independence gives her book precisely the sort of self-interrogating authority one would hope to find in a book that takes the title How to Live.
Jenny Davidson is the author of Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century (Columbia University Press, 2008) and the novel The Explosionist (Harper-Teen, 2008).