"On books," by Michel de Montaigne (from The Complete Works)

December 15, 2014

Lazing with Montaigne on the couch (aka livin' the dream).
I mentioned in my bookish holiday gift guide post that I wanted (and would be receiving) a complete collection of Michel de Montaigne's essays for the holidays. I also spent a bunch of time gushing about all my Montaigne-related feelings, in case you missed it. Welp, Santa Boyfriend and his Amazon Prime elves came through yesterday! We're doing "12 Days of Christmas"-style gifting, and this was my Day 4 gift. (Wonky numbering, I know—travel plans got in the way, so Christmas came early!)

If anyone is even remotely interested in this collection and, for whatever reason, wants a nearly three-pound hardcover copy, I'd recommend this Everyman's Library edition. It's really, really pretty, much more than my cell phone photo makes it look. Also, it comes with one of those little built-in, bookmark string things! What more could you want? (If you'd prefer the weightless e-book copy, I won't judge. But, seriously, look at how attractive this book is.)

If you read my previous post or know anything about Montaigne, you know he's written about a ton of different subjects. I decided to get a taste for his writing with his essay about books, aptly titled "On books." After all, could he have chosen a more appropriate subject? You can read it for free on Project Gutenberg, though the translation from the French is rougher.

Off the bat, I noticed that Montaigne would have made an awesome blogger.
"I have no doubt that I often happen to speak of things that are better treated by the masters of the craft, and more truthfully. ... whoever shall catch me in ignorance will do nothing against me, for I should hardly be answerable for my ideas to others, I who am not answerable for them to myself, or satisfied with them. Whoever is in search of knowledge, let him fish for it where it dwells; there is nothing I profess less. These are my fancies, by which I try to give knowledge not of things, but of myself." - p. 359
He doesn't claim to know anything (basically the point of all his written work, ever) but is rather writing to try to make sense of himself through the lens of his experience, however imperfectly. That's a pretty good definition of blogging, at least to me.

Within the essay, he discusses many ancient writers I haven't read (Cicero, Horace, Plutarch), but this did not stop me from relating to his broader observations about reading. For instance, why he reads:
"I seek in books only to give myself pleasure but honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me in how to die well and live well..." - p. 360 
"... I have a singular curiosity, as I have said elsewhere, to know the soul and the natural judgments of my authors." - p. 366
 And how he reads:
"If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there, after making one or two attacks on them. If I planted myself in them, I would lose both myself and time; for I have an impulsive mind." - p. 361 
"If this book wearies me, I take up another; and I apply myself to it only at the moments when the boredom of doing nothing begins to grip me." - p. 361 

Really, I ought to take his advice. I stick with some confusing passages, as well as some duds of books, for way too long.

I particularly agree with his view of historians (easily applied to other authors) that interpret the meaning of events without giving us the chance to form our own opinions:
"Let them boldly display their eloquence and their reasonings, let them judge all they like; but let them also leave us the wherewithal to judge after them, and not alter or arrange by their abridgments and selection anything of the substance of the matter, but pass it on to us pure and entire in all its dimensions." - p. 369
One place Montaigne and I diverge in thought (oh, the horror!) is his preference for beautiful prose above subject matter.
"... the perfections and beauties of his style of expression make us lose our appetite for his subject. [Horace's] distinction and elegance hold us throughout; he is everywhere so delightful, and so fills our soul with his charms, that we forget those of his plot." - p. 363
 While I do appreciate eloquent writing, I need some substance behind it. Otherwise, I get lost and lose track of why I'm reading it in the first place.

Finally, at the end of the piece, he reveals that he writes in his books. I see this as yet another reason for me to get over my irrational aversion to doing it myself.

In all, this was a great way to introduce myself to Montaigne's work. I definitely see why people find him so accessible, even roughly half a millennium after he wrote his essays.

Have any of you read any Montaigne? What did you think?

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  1. When I was reading Montaigne, I was also thinking he'd be an awesome blogger! :) & I also started writing oin my books more after I read this essay. :)

    1. Yay! So happy to have found someone else who enjoys him as much as I do. :)