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Recommended Reading: Montaigne’s Essays

Nobody can get you in the mood for writing quite like Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the personal essay — and direct literary ancestor of all bloggers.

Image by Tim Gage (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In case you thought you were hallucinating — yes, my blogging-related recommended reading for today is, indeed, from the 16th century. It’s the Essays by French writer Michel de Montaigne, who singlehandedly invented the genre (and the term!).

By Anonymous (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anonymous portrait of Montaigne, via Wikimedia Commons

Montaigne‘s not your average Dead Classical Author, though. Before you fling your iPad out the window, take a look at the following quote. If you’re a blogger, odds are you’ll recognize yourself in this:

I have no other end in this writing, but only to discover myself […].

(Of the Education of Children)

Montaigne was an extraordinary man for any number of reasons. He’s still loved and admired by writers everywhere, though, for being the first to understand that writing, no matter what the topic might be, is first and foremost an expression of our innermost selves.

With every sentence in his Essays (available for free in a number of formats here), he seems to tell us that thoughts are great, but it’s putting them out there — on a page, on a screen, somewhere where others can find them — that makes them valuable.

Lessons from a fierce writer

What could a guy who wrote with a quill possibly teach us about writing today?

There’s the lesson of consistency: for much of his adult life, Montaigne would spend time writing every single day. There’s also the lesson of good editing: he kept polishing his essays long after they’d first been printed.

But there’s also this:

There is nothing so contrary to my style, as a continued narrative, I so often interrupt and cut myself short in my writing for want of breath; I have neither composition nor explanation worth anything, and am ignorant, beyond a child, of the phrases and even the very words proper to express the most common things; and for that reason it is, that I have undertaken to say only what I can say, and have accommodated my subject to my strength.

(Of the Force of Imagination)

Good writers accept their imperfections, the things they’re ignorant about, and the limits of their own perspectives. They thrive using what they do know.

It might sound counterintuitive to let it all hang, so to speak, considering that our words convey a sense of who we are. Isn’t that the perfect reason to put on our fancy clothes and douse our prose with some extra cologne? Exactly the opposite, Montaigne insists:

The way of speaking that I love, is natural and plain, the same in writing as in speaking.
(Of the Education of Children)

It’s the little tics and quirks that make our voices — whether spoken or written — our own. Since we never know how others are going to receive our writing, we might as well own our words and click the “Publish” button with our heads raised high.

If you’re ever paralyzed by the thought that publishing something honest and unadorned will push your readers away, remember that the opposite is just as possible:

A competent reader often discovers in others’ writings other perfections than the author himself either intended or perceived, a richer sense and more quaint expression.
(Various events from the Same Counsel)

Giving the Essays a try

For those who’d like to dip their toes in the Essays (or dive head-first), it’s good to bear in mind that this is still old writing: some of the language might sound archaic, and yes, there are quite a few quotes in Latin (translated as well, of course). But there’s also wisdom, beauty, and wit in just about every line, so the effort pays itself off very quickly.

The best part? This isn’t a book to read cover-to-cover, or even chapter-after-chapter. Many Montaigne lovers, myself included, love jumping around between and within essays — essay-hopping, if you will. Still, if you’re looking for a more guided introduction, be sure to check out Maria Popova’s lovely piece, How to Live: Lessons from Montaigne, Godfather of Blogging.

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  1. Great post – I was introduced to Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell, whose book “How to Live – A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer” I read a couple of years ago. It made me go straight out and buy a copy of Montaigne’s essays!

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    1. I’ve been meaning to take a look at Bakewell’s book, which Maria Popova also refers to in the post I linked to above. Sounds like an interesting read!

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  2. Thank you for this, Ben… I like to write essays, and mostly to please myself. Seems like fiction lately. I often think when I make a comment that I should edit it to sound cooler or more literate… Then think ‘naw, that’s what I meant to say’.

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  3. I was actually inspired to start my blog by Montaigne and Bacon. Kinda inject that old world ‘wordliness’ and reflection a bit. The essays are an excellent read for any aspiring essayist though things have changed quite a bit since!

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  4. Thanks for giving us the discovery of Montaigne. It’s great how he kept on polishing his essays. When I did my masters (for the pharmaceutical industry, nothing to do with writing) one of my teachers said that if we write something and look at it 2 weeks later, it will probably look unpolished and even doubtful that you wrote it yourself. It sounds a bit like some of my posts, haha. With regards to publishing something honest, I do that more often than ever now, thinking I might push my readers away. But I don’t care! 🙂 It’s great to feel identified with a 16th century author. I’ll be reading Montaigne’s essays in the weekends.

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  5. Montaigne is already a hero of mine. He wrote so humanely of other cultures, and indeed on many matters. Thank you, Ben, for reminding me to go back to his essays and alerting others who may not know his writings.

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    1. I couldn’t agree with you more on his well-ahead-of-his-time attitude towards other cultures.

      In case anyone else reading these comments might be interested, his essay Of Cannibals is a classic, and absolutely brilliant.

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  6. Thank you for sharing. It’s always inspiring to read that someone else feels like they are “ignorant” and feel that they are like a child about the most common things….yet, he continues to write.

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    1. I completely agree! Especially when that someone was one of the most well-read people to have ever lived.

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  7. Thank you for reminding me of these. I love reading an exceptional collection of essays. I will always remember effect reading Emerson’s essays, particularly, “Self Reliance” had on my entire view of the world. The essay is, by far, my favorite genre to write in. I can’t wait to sit down and begin to immerse myself in Montaigne’s views on how and why we write.

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  8. I will be keeping this post as something to continuously refer back to. It’s comforting to see classic writers accepting their writing style instead of trying to fit into a supposed mold.

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  9. I’ve had Montaigne on my “to read list” since I got to delve into him a little bit for my MA Thesis (in one essay he alludes to the obscure historical figure I was writing about). This just reinvigorates me to move him higher on my list — good bus reading! Thanks 🙂

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  10. It’s so nice to see other nationalities liking and reading Montaigne. He’s part of our curriculum here in France and so we forget later in life to read him again with a fresh view/eye.

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    1. That’s unfortunately true of so many education systems — we very often shrug off great things simply because we were forced to read them in a totally non-engaging manner.

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  11. So much Montaigne at school when I was growing up in France! It took me a while to see the wisdom and humor. Not sure I will try to match the great guy, but I love the idea of this challenge.
    Bonne chance to anyone who will give it a try.

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  12. I think that a lot of my posts would qualify as essays. I’m certainly not a polished writer, but over the past two years I feel that I have found my voice. Feeling that I know who I am and what I want to say has given me the confidence to write about other subjects.
    Sometimes I rant, remenisce or wax poetic (in my own way). It’s fun to play with the language, hit send and see what happens. Often not much!

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  13. Not sure what it is that captured this post for me, I was flicking through my reader movign on to the next post and the next and that picture stuck out, I am not normally one for history but then it is not normally something I see on WP, so I paused and I read a little and it got me thinking, it was the bit that said “If you’re ever paralyzed by the thought that publishing something honest and unadorned will push your readers away, remember that the opposite is just as possible” that gave me food for thought.

    I don’t think that I get paralyzed as such, but I know sometimes I will hold back. I may just give these essays a go… maybe.

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  14. Oh, how I do love archaic language. I picked up Montaigne’s Essays a year or so back when I read that people used to fall down in tears when they read his writing; it was so beautiful and meaningful. I also picked up How to Live, which I would add my recommendation to. It’s a great read and a nice complement to the essays.

    Great article!

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  15. As a francophile, the mere sight of Montaigne’s name caught my attention to this post. While I am sure I read some of his works in college, I don’t remember them.

    Isn’t it interesting how the word “essays” has come to mean “tests” when the original term meant “attempts”? Blogging is a series of attempts, or tests, to captivate interest and to parlay (another French word) opinions. This post got me thinking…

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      1. Thanks Ben. I’m impressed you actually read my reply. I’m grateful for your daily inspirations.

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  16. Great reminder about one of the masters of writing. I read excerpts of his work a few years back and I love that he coined the term essay–an attempt, to try. Once I thought of it that way, I did not put so much pressure on myself. I was, and am, merely attempting to say something. A very freeing concept. Thanks for the reminder.

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  17. I have discovered myself so much while writing. I am guilty of being too hard on myself… Great post!

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    1. That’s the Montaigne family estate, still standing today in the southwest of France — some people were lucky enough to call a Hogwarts-like castle home… 😉

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