On Montaigne: The Value of Books

On Montaigne: The Value of Books

3 min read

Michel De Montaigne’s Essays live up to his desire to impart a personal touch to authorship, to have the writer reflected in the writing. In this way, he shines a light on the writer’s unique personal history, and shows how those experiences inevitably influence content and subject matter. He demonstrates what he believes constitutes a good book: not only the author’s objective words of description, but also the highly personal ways in which he expresses these ideas. Central to Montaigne’s writing is a sense of authenticity: genuine feeling, spontaneity of expression and, above all, honest reflection.

Sprinkled throughout his essay On Books are subjective emotional value judgments, intermingled with objective appraisals, questioning the accuracy of those whom he critiques, through both a personal and impersonal lens, he proceeds to dissect the writing of authors such as Cicero, Aristotle, Plato, and many others. In each case, Montaigne attempts to balance his own likes and dislikes with an impartial evaluation of his subjects’ works.

For Montaigne, his general approach towards books is one of personal reflectiveness, spontaneity, historical narrative, and logical analysis. Looking for all of these traits in his own writing as well as in the writing of others, he desires to stitch together a complete picture not only of the work itself, but of the writer. He blends straight-forward facts with emotional reflections, weaving in and out of each, his thoughts flowing gracefully from personal experience to the points being described. Clarity, with a dose of self-expression, smoothed over by logic, seems to be his preference in literature – and, by implication, in his own writing.

For me, the value of books in general, is hearing echoed in me, whatever the text leads me to experience. Books are, thus, an entirely personal, and often subjective experience. There is no fundamental point to books in themselves – they are a vessel for ideas; this vessel can be filled with anything. The point of a book hinges on what is intended by the author—and equally if not more so—what one receives by way of material absorption, in translation. Where we search for meaning in the external world (in books, in music, in art) we discover through our own lens.

However, I’d like to now deviate from an intellectual analysis of Montaigne’s work, and move toward a more personal response to his ideas on what makes a good book. I gravitate toward books which convey a deeper meaning to something than I had previously understood. This could be said to be the point of books: to reveal and to enlighten. The best books intrigue, baffle, and provoke us; they coax us, if you will – inspiring us to turn the first page, to the next one, and the next. A well-written book challenges us—though it doesn’t seek to confuse us, or in any way to dissuade us from continuing the experience. As a personal preference, I also tend to value (more than Montaigne) the logic and accuracy of what is being said, over personal narrative. For example, if I’m reading philosophy, I’d be interested in what life the philosopher lived, but only secondarily to his philosophical assertions and argument.

Personal history and writing are always interlinked – whether overtly or subtly; one cannot separate the author from his or her book any more than an artist from his or her work of art. For example, personal reflections disguised—however partially or otherwise—as logic, could, at times, be traced to an author, with enough inspection and investigation. I believe there is a possibly for this to be the case with Montaigne at certain points.

And, the degree to which a writer acknowledges these biases, is largely influenced by how conscious he is of how life experiences have shaped his point of view. Being aware of one’s own personal influences makes it easier to recognize when bias leads to an error in accuracy, for example. When one lacks those insights, one is in no position to apply corrective measures (as Freud would attest).

Books dominate our lives: from cover to cover, we uncover what we haven’t yet discovered within and without, through each turn of the page. Our own lives, the lives of others, past and present, are read, reread, and revised, via this versatile medium. In a sense, books etch our ephemeral realities onto a more solid bedrock of temporal permanence, frozen in time – instead of being lost: adrift, in the impermanence of time.