Montaigne “On Books” – translated by J.M Cohen

I’m in that dip that often follows a good book – nothing looks tempting enough to distract you from the grumpy withdrawal, and you wonder how there can be so little to read in a flat full of novels. So, while my boyfriend was watching snooker last night I lazily flicked through my copy of Montaigne’s essays, only half-reading the one entitled “On Books” (and admittedly, feeling a little pretentious).

And then I started to enjoy myself as I realised, not for the first time, that people haven’t changed in the least since the sixteenth century – readers now are at heart exactly the same as readers then. At one point, Montaigne admits that, “though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing.” That is so familiar – a week after I’ve finished a novel I can tell you what I felt about it, but would almost certainly struggle to name the characters; and as for quoting from the text – forget it. Of course, Montaigne then goes on to talk about a number of Greek philosophers at length – so evidently something is sinking in – but later on he explains that, “I have adopted the habit for some time now of noting at the end of every book…the date when I finished it and the opinion I had formed of it as a whole…” Well, that sounds very much like a blog to me. Montaigne, no doubt, would be a master of WordPress.

And then he turns to commentators. Early on in the essay, he permits himself a Coriolanus moment and decries “modern” critics, saying, “I have sometimes deliberately omitted to name my source, in order to check the rashness of those hasty critics who pounce on writings of every sort, especially on new books by men still living, written in the vulgar tongue: a practice which permits the whole world to comment, and seemingly to prove that their conception and design are vulgar also.” Obviously as an amateur reviewer I would be caught under his umbrella of scorn; nevertheless I can certainly recognise what he’s saying. Deliberately caustic reviews in a broadsheet are one thing, but social media now allows any of us who speak the “vulgar tongue” to have our say; which can be both a wonderful expression of free speech, a way of enabling an entirely new, fundamentally democratic self-publishing industry, but also a scene of critical disasters. One wonders what Montaigne would have made of the campaign signed by authors like Anne Rice to remove the anonymity of reviewers on Amazon ( in a bid to protect them from bullying; I sense he would have approved!


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