Wednesday, 18 November 2015

On Books by Michel de Montaigne.

Detail of the title page of Essais.
'On Books' is the tenth essays from Michel de Montaigne's Essays (Essais), first published in 1580: a great surprise to me because de Montaigne feels so much more modern than that. 

The essay opens with the rather odd statement,
I have no doubt that I often happen to speak of things that are much better and more truly handled by those who are masters of the trade.
Nevertheless he presses on (with the essay and indeed the complete collection, which contains 107 essays I believe), and he tells us why he reads - 
In books I only look for the pleasure of honest entertainment; or if I study, the only learning I look for is that which tells me how to know myself, and teaches me how to die well and to live well: Has meus ad metas sudet oportet equus [This is the goal towards which my horse should strain].
Thus, he goes on, he does not get too concerned over that which he doesn't understand or like: "What I do not see immediately, I see even less by persisting", and "If one book bores me, I take up another". 

He writes of the books he likes for "simple entertainment" - Boccaccio's Decameron, Rabelais (presumably Gargantua and Pantagruel, which is on my Classics Club list and I'm very much looking forward to!), and The Kisses of Johannes Everaarts. Virgil's Georgics, he writes, is "the most accomplished work in all poetry", and the fifth book of the Aeneid is "the most perfect". "Good old Terence", he says, "personifies the charm and grace of the Latin tongue", and Terence and Plautus together "crowd into a single play five or six tales by Boccaccio". Plutarch and Seneca are both mentioned too - "[t]hey both have this particular advantage for my temperament that the knowledge I seek is there treated in disconnected pieces that do not demand the bondage of prolonged labour, of which I am incapable".

Plato, on the other hand, doesn't get such a good write-up - "Will the licence of the age excuse my sacrilegious boldness in thinking that even Plato's dialogues drag, and stifle their meaning in a plethora of argument?" Aristotle, too - for Montaigne feels as though his works could do with a re-ordering ("I should like him to begin with his conclusion"). As for Cicero (though he admits to liking reading Letters to Atticus),
... I am of the common opinion that, apart from his learning, he had no great excellence of mind; he was a good citizen, and easy-going by nature, as stout and jovial men of his kind usually are; but he had, in all truth, a great deal of weakness and ambitious vanity about him. And I do not know how to excuse him for thinking his poetry fit to be published...
From the ancients to the medieval - Jean Froissart, "who pursued his task with such candid simplicity that when he made a mistake he was not afraid to acknowledge it and set it right as soon as it was pointed out to him".  Montaigne then writes on the art of history writing, admonishing those who "take it upon themselves to judge, and consequently to fashion history to their own ideas". Then from history, we return to the start - Montaigne again acknowledges his poor memory, and concludes -
To compensate a little for the treacheries and deficiencies of my memory, which are so extreme that more than once I have picked up, thinking it new and unknown to me, some book that I had carefully read some years before, and scribbled all over with my notes, I have adopted the habit for some time now of noting at the end of every book - I mean of those I do not intend to read again - the date when I finished it and the opinion. 
Motaigne, as you can see, would most likely have been a blogger, or at the very least had a Goodreads account!

I loved this essay. It felt very much of the moment - very lively, warm, and witty. It's also reassuring - so often we're told that the classics are classics because they're good and that we ought to like them, and if we don't we're missing the point. Montaigne has no qualms about writing about the books and authors he didn't care for, nor does he have any issue with not finishing a book he's started. And yet , with very good reason, he's one of the most celebrated essayists of the western canon. 


  1. i love montaigne. he allows one to feel it's all right to be a human; and that you don't have to like every book you're supposed to... he suffered agonies from the stone, which may have contributed to his reflective perspective. in search of cure, he made a tour of spas from germany to italy during which he recorded his adventures and observations. well worth reading.

  2. This is one of his more cohesive essays. He disliked classical education, eschewing order for impulse, and his writing often show this bent. And, of course, his layperson claim at the beginning of this essay does not stop him from giving forceful opinions. Montaigne will give opinions on everything. I disagree with him almost as much as I agree with him, but his essays are delightful, and some of my favourite reading.

    I'm just trying to finish up his selected essays for the year, so I laughed when I saw your post. We seem to be gravitating to the same books lately ....... Montaigne, Austen, Chaucer, etc. What do they say about great minds? ;-)

    1. I have his selected essays - I'm wondering if I should read them or try to get the complete edition? I think Jillian's read the complete essays and loved them...

      And yes, we're definitely on the same wavelength at the moment with our book choices! :) Motaigne, Austen, Chaucer - and don't forget Ovid and Spenser - AND - am I right in thinking you'll be reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas with Ruth next year? Because I was thinking about that too!

    2. I would purchase his complete essays. They are so much fun! Even if you don't agree with him, they're fun. And, for me, he is one of the most communicative authors ever. I feel almost as if I know him, which makes him twice as enjoyable to read.

      Yes, definitely Ovid and Spenser. I'm going to be reading Alice B. Toklas too --- I'm not really looking forward to it, but we'll see how it goes.

    3. I was looking forward to reading Alice B Toklas when I first heard of it, but never did get round to it! I'll read along with you, that will definitely motivate me!

  3. I love that he wrote his thoughts in his books, and signed them with the date. :) This is one of my favorites by Montaigne. He's so funny and open about everything. I think he'd be an excellent blogger!


Popular Posts of the Year