“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.”
Michel de Montaigne
A 16th century winegrower and writer making headlines in The New York Times? Sounds unlikely, but when I picked up a recent issue of the Arts section there it was: “Conversation Across Centuries With the Father of All Bloggers.” Below this catchy headline was a story about How to Live, a new biography of Michel de Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell, which the reviewer called “a delightful conversation across centuries.” Sounds like a must-read!
Just to refresh your memory, Montaigne is the fellow who single-handedly invented a whole genre of writing: the essay. As he himself describes it, an essay is an “attempt” or “trial” — a freewheeling or focused exploration of a theme. Michel wrote over 100 of these spirited investigations of his own mind and the human condition. The territory he covered is mind-boggling. Here’s a sampling:
By diverse means we arrive at the same end.
Our feelings reach out beyond us.
Of the custom of wearing clothes.
How we cry and laugh for the same thing.
How our mind hinders itself.
Montaigne’s fresh and lively reflections on subjects like these have captured many another writer’s admiration, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Virginia Woolf to Isaac Asimov. There’s some evidence that even Willy Shakespeare fell under his spell. What is it that makes him so appealing? He blends deep knowledge with wit and personal story telling — an irresistible combination. People who pick up his essays — biographer Sarah Bakewell among them — find that his intimate approach to writing and life seems to mirror their own thoughts in some deeply satisfying way. This “in the moment” quality of his writing is what gives it such universal appeal and why Michel has been dubbed “the father of all bloggers.” Surely if he were around today, he’d be moonlighting on the ‘net! A parting thought from Montaigne’s pen to ponder: “There is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.”