|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.