Wednesday, August 7, 2013

montaigne #3: on reading

It's amazing to me how personal and unique the experience of reading really is. Reading can bring to anything to mind: brutal wars, torrid love affairs, journeys to exotic locales (including outer/inner space), or even Marvin Gaye singing the Star Spangled Banner at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. But mostly, reading is an imagined conversation. A short text is like passing someone in a hallway and getting a snippet of information ("Hey, how ya doin'?" "Fine.").  A medium-length text can be more enlightening or entertaining ("Dude, you wouldn't believe what happened last night!").  A longer text can feel like a relationship; when I finish a really good novel I feel a little wistful saying goodbye to characters who have managed to take on lives of their own and become "people" in my imagination. Experiencing all this without leaving my chair still surprises me with all sorts of thoughts and feelings I wouldn't have if I didn't read.

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 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.

Excerpt from:

Bakewell, Sarah. (2010). How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  New York: Other Press.

pp. 64-67

            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.


  1. I love reading, but I can't emotionally connect to stories like others can. With few exceptions, I usually feel a sense of nothingness towards the characters and their end; as if the story was nothing more than an acquaintance.

    On the other hand, something that captures the hopeless tragedy and sadness without history or politics being heavily involved, is more my style of reading material. These are my favorite books because they capture that essence that I find so interesting. Sometimes it's the characters or the concept that make the book more exceptional than the actual writing.

    -The Road
    -Gone Girl
    -Jane Eyre
    -Never Let Me Go
    -Game of Thrones
    -Lord of the Flies
    -Pride and Prejudice
    -The Tale of Despereaux
    -The Catcher in the Rye

    Note: I did shamelessly read the god-awful 50 Shades of Grey and was able to put it down without having any desire to go out and buy the next two in the trilogy.

  2. "You will be the same person in ten years except for the books you read and the people you meet"
    -Chancellor Runnels

    I have to be honest that these past few years i have not picked up a book to read for fun, but only to complete assignments. Reading is part of education, it allow the reader to create and visualize how the characters and setting look. What i enjoy about reading is that it requires its reader to be open-minded to whatever they will be exposed to. The reader must consider each and every character in order to put the story line together. It truly is mind-boggling how much you can learn from a book wether it be a life lesson, a simple fact, a joke, or a historic event.

  3. Reading is one of my only past times that I feel I will keep forever because I love the endless worlds that authors conjure up for their readers. I feel as if reading is a way of self educating yourself on subjects that school education and high school experience itself cannot help teach you about. The practice of reading can also help exercise the minds imagination in various ways, whether it's discovering the lands of the Middle Earth or venturing into the magic of the dark arts. I've read numerous upon numerous amounts of books over the years and I'd have to say that there was not one book I did not gain any new knowledge from. The awesome part about reading is when your mind melds itself to be the main character or characters in the book. The many experiences you get to experience, the emotions, the hardships (I may be getting a bit dramatic here), you as a reader just seem to understand or relate. In short, I love to read. It's a good practice for the mind, either it be reading poetic Dr. Seuss books or ____ For Dummies books.