We asked writer Sarah Bakewell to comment on her current work and ideas that have influenced her…
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
I’m fascinated by the idea of travel – why people do it, how they do it, how it changes them, and how it is linked with a certain acquisitiveness. People have travelled for many reasons: to buy and sell goods, to build contacts, to gather intelligence, to find a better life, or to have a new experience. These are all acquisitions, yet travelling is also a letting go, a giving up of control. The more I think about the psychology of it, and the impact travel has had on the modern world, the more it astonishes me.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
Among all the ideas in Montaigne that have blown me away, the greatest is the notion that it is better to approach situations from sidelong angles, rather than head-on. For grief, for example, Montaigne believed that it was better to distract or divert oneself, rather than delving deeper into it – this was a suggestion he picked up from the Epicureans. But he took it further, and also tried to get away from straight-ahead perspectives when considering new experiences and ideas. He would circle around, and try the idea from some unexpected position. For example, when he met a group of ‘cannibals’ brought from Brazil to Rouen in 1562, he immediately wondered how he and his fellow Frenchmen seemed to them. I’ve tried to use these sideways slippages to govern my own life a bit differently, and the principle has guided much of my Montaigne book. Perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come. It features in an intriguing new book by the economist John Kay, called Obliquity. He could have given it a more oblique title, perhaps, but you can’t have everything.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
I can’t help saying that everyone should read Montaigne’s Essays at somepoint in their lives. It’s so rich in adventurous thoughts, scepticism, wit, good sense, great anecdotes and sheer life and individuality: wherever you open it, you find something that enables you to live your own life a little better. But I wouldn’t sit down and read the whole thing from beginning to end, and I wouldn’t read it in search of overarching ideas. It’s a book for meandering in and out of; you can follow Montaigne when he keeps your interest and lay him aside when he doesn’t. By going on like this, you could live your whole life and never come to the end of reading Montaigne.
And finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago: “What will the future make of the present?” What is your answer to this?
We like to think that we will loom large in the minds of our descendants, and maybe we will, either for useful things (the creation of the internet, medical breakthroughs) or for causing disasters (failure to deal with environmental problems). More likely, all the things we think are devastatingly important about our era will fade into obscurity, because this is what generally happens. Many in the past thought that they were living in some period from which history could never recover, enduring unprecedented wars, adjusting to drastic new technologies, and even heading into Armageddon. Skip ahead to the present, and it turns out that we remember most of these periods only vaguely, and if we do, we probably misunderstand them. This is not a gloomy thought, but a cheering one. It implies that life will go on. Future people will have their own dramas to worry about – and perhaps they will remember us for something we barely register, like deep sea exploration.