“When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.”—French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), from The Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne, translated and edited by Marvin Lowenthal (1999)
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you happy except when you have a book in your hands,” the perceptive nun who served as principal of my elementary school once told me. Had Michel de Montaigne—born on this date in 1533—been around, I imagine, he might have reassured her that it would all work out for me in the end.
Any blogger—indeed, any writer in the genre known as the personal or “familiar” essay—owes a debt of gratitude to this 16th century provincial Frenchman. No subject was beyond his ken—especially himself. Countless writers, fearing embarrassment resulting from their own excessive candor, have gathered their courage anew by seeing how much Montaigne dared to disclose about himself.
But books—roughly 1,000 in his library, a considerable number for that time—were the well from which he sustained himself. If you read his essays, just with an eye for their literary allusions, you could compile a curriculum for yourself in the Greek and Roman classics. In fact, he quotes these writers so liberally that you would be well launched toward understanding the substance of these soaring minds of antiquity.
Great literature helped him realize that self-knowledge was tentative. That is how he came to view the genre he pioneered. (Essai is French for “trial” or “attempt.”)