Of the numberless books you’ve read in your life, how many would you happily read again? Thirty years ago, you devoted a day, a week, to a book. You submitted to the author’s presumption and inhabited his little kingdom. Would you do it again? No, in most cases. Here’s a conceit worthy of Borges: write a list of all the books you’ve read that you can no longer remember, not even the titles or authors’ names. Do you even recognize those earlier reading selves, so indiscriminate in taste? Is there any continuity with those strangers?
I first read Montaigne in a high school literature text. I don’t remember which essay but I’m certain I wasn’t impressed. Only when reading The Tempest and Tristram Shandy a few years later as a freshman at the university did I circle back and discover what Shakespeare and Sterne already knew. The latter acknowledges his debt to the essayist in a Sept. 9, 1760, letter to the Rev. Robert Brown:
“`For my conning Montaigne as much as my pray’r book’—there you are right again,--but mark, a 2nd time, I have not said I admire him as much;--tho had he been alive, I would certainly have gone twice as far to have smoaked a pipe with him, as with Arch-Bishop Laud or his Chaplains, (tho’ one of ’em by the bye, was my grandfather).”
The passage quoted at the top is from Montaigne’s longest essay, “Apologie for Raymond Sebond,” in the 1603 translation by John Florio (1553-1625). I’ve never read this version except in extracts in connection with Shakespeare, who knew Florio’s Montaigne. I know Donald Frame’s. Florio’s prose is a pleasure. In his version of “Of the Institution and Education of Children,” Montaigne relates his preferences in language:
“It is a naturall, simple, and unaffected speech that I love, so written as it is spoken, and such upon the paper, as it is in the mouth, a pithie, sinnowie, full, strong, compendious and material speech, not so delicate and affected, as vehement and piercing.”
The effect is to be reading Montaigne for the first time, a more “pithie, sinnowie” Montaigne, though still possessing the familiar acuity of mind. In his introduction to the 1983 North Point Press edition of Montaigne’s Travel Journal (collected in Every Force Evolves a Form, 1987), Guy Davenport writes:
“We all lead a moral inner life of the spirit, on which religion, philosophy, and tacit opinion have many claims. To reflect on this inner life rationally is a skill no longer taught, though successful introspection, if it can make us at peace with ourselves, is sanity itself. The surest teachers of such reflection, certainly the wittiest and most forgiving, are Plutarch and Montaigne.”