When Montaigne retired from public life in 1571, age thirty-seven, he moved into the Château de Montaigne in the Dordogne and claimed one of its fortified towers as his redoubt (his wife occupied the other tower). He turned the ground floor into a chapel and added an inner spiral staircase. The next floor became his bedroom and the next his library, his bookish sanctum sanctorum. Sarah Bakewell describes it in How to Live:
“The most striking feature of the main library room, when Montaigne occupied it, was his fine collection of books, housed in five rows on a beautifully curving set of shelves. The curve was necessary to fit the round tower, and must have been quite a carpentry challenge. The shelves presented all Montaigne’s books to his view at a single glance: a satisfying sweep. He owned around a thousand volumes by the time he moved into the library, many inherited from his friend [Étienne de]La Boétie, others bought by himself. It was a substantial collection, and Montaigne actually read his books, too. Today they are dispersed; the shelves too have gone.”
The final sentence is a reminder that we don’t truly own possessions; even the best of us merely take care of them for a short time. With sufficient wealth and good taste, Montaigne fashioned the perfect boy’s club house -- for one boy. I don’t say this derisively. Some people put knotty-pine paneling, a pool table and bar in the basement and declare it a sanctuary. Who can blame them? Montaigne, a veteran administrator during a time of religious civil war, needed something else – quiet, distance, perspective, time. Bakewell’s line is perhaps unintentionally funny: “…and Montaigne actually read his books, too.”
I know a man, still young, who has accumulated so many books he stores them, at considerable expense, in the climate-controlled space he rents on the other side of the city where he lives. He visits them as he might a convalescing aunt but the books remain in sealed, unlabeled, acid-free boxes. Once I mentioned Jonathan Galassi’s translation of Montale’s Collected Poems 1920-1954. He got excited and said he bought it in hardcover when it was published in 1998, but had never found time to read it. It’s in one of the boxes.
I understand the collecting mania and had a mild case of it when young, and I also understand the cachet even unread books bestow on their owners. There was a time when I would have been consumed with envy over so many virgin volumes. The difference between the suburban storage-unit and Montaigne’s tower is a difference of sensibility, yes, but also of need. My library, perhaps five thousand volumes, is a fluid work in progress. I own a few valuable volumes – valuable mostly because their authors signed them for me -- but some of the most precious are broken-spined paperbacks I’ve owned and read for years – J.V. Cunningham’s Collected Essays and Pascal’s Pensées in a 1961 Penguin edition. I don’t own a single book I wouldn’t give away to the appropriate reader.
Bakewell says Montaigne “took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family.”