Classics for quarantine: Reading in Michel de Montaigne’s ‘Essays’

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When I decided to take a gap year last summer, I set out to fill my spare time with writing about the books I have been reading. This was new for me — though I am an English major, I hardly wrote about a book unless it was for a paper. Reading for recreation was decidedly absent of close reading. 

But without classes, close reading itself became absent, and I soon realized that it wasn’t necessarily literature itself that sustains me — it must also include the subsequent act of analysis. For when we make sense of what we read, we are making sense of our own lives — and in a time like this, when the world around us often doesn’t make sense, the act of sense-making becomes even more crucial.

So, I have dedicated about nine months of my life so far to writing essays, much like these weekly columns, for the sake of writing them. And, perhaps more than what I have discovered about each book I have read, through this activity I have discovered new things about myself. As Michel de Montaigne writes, “If I study [books], ‘tis for no other science than what treats of the knowledge of myself, and instructs me how to die and how to live well.”

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Sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne pioneered the form of the modern essay. His work “Essays,” first published in Middle French in 1580, has a modest name for what it contains: over 100 intertextual, lucid essays of various lengths and topics. Montaigne writes about everything, from virtues to politics to mundanities; essays like “Of Sorrow” and “Of the Inequality Among Us” are intermixed with titles like “Of Smells,” “Of Cannibals” and, one of my favorites, “Of Thumbs.” (Feel free to peruse Wikipedia’s full list of the “Essays” for some amusement.)

But what unites these incredibly diverse essays is that they are, essentially, exercises in close reading for living. Montaigne does not just philosophize abstractly; he does not simply muse on the complexities of the human condition in the empty space of his mind: Everything has to do with books. Peppered throughout the “Essays” are quotes from the classics — from Virgil, Seneca, Livy, Ovid and countless others — which provide the base upon which Montaigne builds each of his essays.

These literary and historical references, though, do not provide what we may consider the “evidence” for Montaigne’s claims. In his essay “On Reading,” Montaigne explicitly discusses his relationship to books, and notes that his essays “are fancies of my own, by which I do not pretend to discover things but to lay open myself.” He says, again, “I can promise no certainty.” Fundamentally then, the “Essays” are not treatises on big ideas, though many of us throughout history have reached to them for their wisdom. They are sustained acts of self-reflection. Literature is the conduit through which Montaigne thinks about himself, and thus about the world. 

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This will be the last entry of my column “Classics for quarantine” for now. It has certainly been a delight to reflect on the present-day relevance of my bookshelf, but I find that one can only spend so much time reading for one particular thing. There are always other things to think about. As Montaigne shows us, reading is wonderful because it can offer insight into every aspect of life — every experience, every event and every idea is contained in the written word. 

And so there is no use in confining ourselves to a single topic of inquiry if we grow tired of it, even if that topic is interesting, and even if that inquiry has been fruitful. Montaigne writes that reading, above all, must be enjoyable:

“I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading … I do nothing without gaiety; continuation and a too obstinate endeavour, darkens, stupefies, and tires my judgment. My sight is confounded and dissipated with poring; I must withdraw it, and refer my discovery to new attempts; just as, to judge rightly of the lustre of scarlet, we are taught to pass the eye lightly over it, and again to run it over at several sudden and reiterated glances.”

This peripatetic method of reading, of “pass[ing] the eye lightly over it … at several sudden and reiterated glances,” is an interesting recommendation, for it suggests that the mode of discovery is not close concentration but actually something closer to spontaneity — new, fresh energy. 

Those last three words may feel furthest from our current state of living. But there is always opportunity for change, even if it is something small. Personally, as we enter this second year of the pandemic, I will be looking for that thing with the “lustre of scarlet” — a thing that is red and hot and burning, and that has the potential to ignite the soul in a new and unexpected way.

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Lily Nilipour is the Vol. 259 Reads desk editor for Arts & Life and an English major on a gap year. She loves to talk modernism — especially Virginia Woolf — digital humanities and literary magazines. Contact her at lnilipour 'at' stanforddaily.com