Jonathan Self: What I Discovered When I Finally Read a Book I’ve Wanted to Read for 40 Years
The author finally found the courage to read Montaigne — here is what he did with it.
Although I’ve never noticed it before, my copy of PG Wodehouse Luck of the Bodkinsa book that I’ve read maybe 40 times has the exact same blue cloth cover as my copy of Montaigne’s Essaysa book that I had intended to read for about forty years (like Saint Augustine, I often prayed: “O Lord, let me study the great classics, but not yet”).
The similarity was brought to my attention forcefully this week at the start of a long and lonely train journey. Opening the only book I had taken with me, I was horrified not to read, as I had expected: the sly look of a puppy dog that announces that an Englishman is about to speak French’, but real French : ‘The commonest way to soften the hearts of those we have offended, when having vengeance in hand, they hold us to their pity, is to move them by submission to commiseration and pity..’
Yet we Selves can take the rough with the smooth and I spent a few passably happy hours trying to apprehend the man who is credited with inventing the essay, a word that comes from “essai” in French—in the sense of an experimental effort. Montaigne experimented with a wide range of topics, from cannibalism to why people wear clothes, and the downsides of size (chance would be a beautiful thing) to inches. He could also be witty. My regular bursts of laughter at his text: “It’s not difficult to have children; but after they are born, then the trouble begins”; “There is hardly less difficulty in governing a particular family than an entire kingdom”; “Doctors are lucky: the sun shines on their successes, and the earth hides their failures” – made the other passengers look.
Where I found it most insightful, however, was on the topic of the conversation. Montaigne maintained that “the most fruitful and natural game of the mind is in conversation” and I am inclined to agree with him. One of my greatest pleasures in life is to converse, especially with Rose, my wife. We are used to going out for lunch or for a drink together several times a week and, while chatting, we often observe with sadness and, I must admit, a certain complacency, couples sitting in stony silence or, worse , ignoring each other as they scroll on their phones.
Socializing again after several years of not seeing a soul (first because of my pesky health, then because of the pesky pandemic), I was struck by how few people seem to understand the art of conversation, i.e. taking an interest in others, listening to what they say, raising topics that may be of interest to them and exchanging ideas. An art in which it is acceptable to argue — “There is”, as Montaigne himself so aptly put it, “no conversation more boring than that in which everyone is in agreement” — but not get carried away. Indeed, my impression of almost everyone I’ve met recently is that they’re primarily preoccupied with themselves and their opinions are largely set in stone.
If I had had a conversational companion for my trip, we could have discussed this and anything we imagined, surely with the approval of the great philosopher. As he said, “The study of books has a weak and languid motion, while conversation provides both instruction and exercise.”
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