How do you feel about reading? [*Besides disliking school assignments. I think we can agree that none of us like being forced to do anything. I'm asking about the reading you've sought out on your own. And if you haven't, it's time to start. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need help getting started.] How have your reading experiences (or lack of reading experiences) influenced the way you think and feel about reading? As you read Montaigne's ideas, think about how we can choose texts and design reading experiences this year that will make you a happier and more effective reader. I look forward to your comments.
Bakewell, Sarah. (2010). How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other Press.
The close grammatical study of Cicero and Horace almost killed Montaigne’s interest in literature before it was born. But some of the teachers at the school helped keep it going, mainly by not taking more entertaining books out of the boy’s hands when they caught him reading them, and perhaps even by slipping a few more his way—doing this so discreetly that he could enjoy reading them without ceasing to feel like a rebel.
One unsuitable text Montaigne discovered for himself at the age of seven or eight, and which changed his life, was Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This tumbling cornucopia of stories about miraculous transformations among ancient gods and mortals was the closest thing the Renaissance had to a compendium of fairy tales. As full of horrors and delights as a Grimm or Andersen, and quite unlike the texts of the schoolroom, it was the sort of thing an imaginative sixteenth-century boy could read with eyes rounded and fingers white-knuckled from gripping the covers too tightly.
In Ovid, people change. They turn into trees, animals, stars, bodies of water, or disembodied voices. They alter sex; they become werewolves. A woman called Scylla enters a poisonous pool and sees each of her limbs turn into a dog-like monster from which she cannot pull away because the monsters are also her. The hunter Actaeon is changed into a stag, and his own hunting-dogs chase him down. Icarus flies so high that the sun burns him. A king and a queen turn into two mountains. The nymph Samacis plunges herself into the pool where the beautiful Hermaphroditus is bathing, and wraps herself around him like a squid holding fast to its prey, until her flesh melts into his and the two become one person, half male, half female. Once a taste of this sort of thing had started him off, Montaigne galloped through other books similarly full of good stories: Virgil’s Aeneid, then Terence, Platusm and various modern Italian comedies. He learned, in defiance of school policy, to associate reading with excitement. It was the one positive thing to come out of his time there. (“But, Montaigne adds, “for all that, it was still school.”)
...He loved the way Plutarch assembled his work by stuffing in fistfuls of images, conversations, people, animals, and objects of all kinds, rather than by coldly arranging abstractions and arguments. His writing is full of things, Montaigne pointed out. If Plutarch wants to tell us that the trick in living well is to make the best of any situation, he does it by telling the story of a man who threw a stone at his dog, missed, hit his stepmother instead, and exclaimed, “Not so bad after all!” Or, if he wanted to show us how we tend to forget the good things in life and obsess only about the bad, he writes about flies landing on mirrors and sliding about on the smooth surface, unable to find a footing until they hit a rough area. Plutarch leaves no neat endings, but he sows seeds from which whole worlds of inquiry can be developed. He points where we can go if we like; he does not lead us, and it is up to us whether we obey or not.
Montaigne also loved the strong sense of Plutarch’s own personality that comes across in his work: “I think I know him even into his soul.” This was what Montaigne looked for in a book, just as people later looked for it in him: the feeling of meeting a real person across the centuries. Reading Plutarch, he lost awareness of the gap in time that divided them—much bigger than the gap between Montaigne and us. It does not matter, he wrote, whether a person one loves has been dead for fifteen hundred years or, like his own father at the time, eighteen years. Both are equally remote; both are equally close.
Montaigne’s merging of favorite authors with his own father says a lot about how he read: he took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family.