Montaigne is intimidating to the twenty-first century reader. He introduces different sources into his essays seamlessly. They are rarely obscure, yet they bother today’s reader because they fail to make a contemporary reading list. Tacitus and Seneca are no longer required reading for the pseudo-intellectual. Moreover, he quotes them in the Latin. This really should not be intimidating since Montaigne was written in 16th century French. American readers rarely read him in the original. Yet the reader realizes they have missed something because they fail to understand his quotations in the original language.
I am struck by Montaigne not because he incorporates so many distinct ideas. On the contrary, I am stunned he uses so few. A mundane article written in an obscure journal will include an additional two to three pages simply of references. Montaigne wrote three volumes of essays and could probably have fit his sources onto a single page. Timeless ideas do not require obscure libraries or years of studies in expensive institutions. The education of Montaigne was nothing more than an undergraduate education in the classics. Indeed, it was less because a liberal arts degree today incorporates a diversity of academic disciplines like science, math and history that have been transformed since the days of Montaigne.
The multitude of quotations in the original Latin fool us into believing Montaigne had memorized the classics. The young scholar skips past his humility in a rush to add this title to their personal catalog of sources. Yet I find a personal connection with this man. “I turn over books; I do not study them.” He writes out thoughts and ideas he does not trust in his head because “I immediately forget; and I am so excellent at forgetting, that I no less forget my own writings and compositions than the rest.”
His humanity spills out onto the page. He peruses a limited library to challenge his mind, yet it is his own experiences that provide his greatest source for material. The accumulation of knowledge does not allow an individual to learn more today. It simply replaces the knowledge he abandons. A primitive hunter gatherer may challenge our greatest scholars in a walk through their own territory. They learn things that cannot be put into books. They know things that must be experienced rather than read. And the time we spend reading books or inspecting our phones is lost in the experience of examination and reflection upon the world that exists around us.
Nonetheless, I walk into a library and feel a sense of shame at all the titles I have failed to read. I stumble to my favorite shelf and become intimidated with the challenge in front of me. But do writers really read all the books and articles they cite? It seems the best must. Yet I am unsure when I come across pages of titles thrown together for such short articles. Yet, there are moments when I read a book and wonder whether I am the only person to have read this book. Has this library placed this book on the shelf just for me to find it? I miss the old cards that marked a book’s history. It linked the reader to every past cardholder who took the time to take this text home.
It was the writings of Montaigne that encouraged me to put my own thoughts onto paper. His ideas wandered across the page. He brought his ideas to a close in a way that left the reader lost in thought. Not his own thought, but the thoughts of Montaigne. It’s not uncommon to check the title upon the completion of an essay because its conclusion did not match its introduction. Have I challenged readers with my own ramblings? I might be so lucky.
jmk, carmel, indiana, firstname.lastname@example.org