Montaigne's study in his castle. On the wall the points
where his book cases had been attached can still be seen.
Montaigne loved books. He had a large collection of books. About thousand books. Maybe it’s not impressive in view of what many people have today, but he lived in a different age, and not many people could afford to buy such a collection. Moreover, many people were illiterate in those days. Also Montaigne hadn’t bought a big part of his collection himself. He inherited the library of his friend Étienne de La Boétie, who had bequeathed his books to him on his deathbed. It’s a pity that nothing remains of Montaigne’s book collection, for after his death his daughter sold his books or gave them away. How nice then that at the moment a project is going on to reconstruct Montaigne’s library: https://montaigne.univ-tours.fr/restitution-3d/ . Nevertheless, it would be interesting not only to know which books Montaigne had, but to really have them as well, for he had the habit to make notes in his books. They could tell us much about his ideas and intellectual development. Until now only a few of his books have been found back. Anyway, we know that Montaigne had dedicated his bookcase to La Boétie by having put a board with such a text on the top of it. Till about 1820 it still must have been there in Montaigne’s study and some have described the text. Since then it is lost. Also the bookcase is no longer there.
Happily, we know a lot of what Montaigne read from his Essays. He even wrote an essay about it, titled “Of Books” (Book II, 10). Montaigne writes there that he read for amusing himself in the first place. In case he wanted to gather knowledge from a book, it was in order to know himself better and to learn to die and live in the right way. Montaigne wrote about the latter also in his Essays and it made that this book is still so popular. It’s one of the classics one has to read if one wants to know what philosophers see a good life.
Montaigne preferred classical literature to modern literature. The former is better, he thinks. Since he also preferred to read books in the original language, he read mainly Latin books, for his schoolboy knowledge of Old Greek, as he calls it, was not good enough for understanding the Greek literature well. Besides, in his days not yet much classical literature had been translated into French. Note that it was the time of the Renaissance, when many old books just were rediscovered. In view of this it’s striking that the first book after his remark that he prefers the classics is Boccaccio’s Decamerone, which he read for his amusement, so he says, just like for instance, Rabelais. As for the classics, Montaigne first mentions in his essay “Of Books” the poetry of Virgil, Lucretius, Catullus and Horace. From Virgil he especially names his Aeneid, which is an epic poetic work; not what most of us would consider poetry today. He says that in his days Virgil’s work was often compared with the work by Ariosto, an Italian writer who lived some fifty years before Montaigne and who was quite popular then. For many people today Ariosto will be unknown, unless you are an opera lover, for composers like Vivaldi and Händel used his texts for their operas. Montaigne didn’t think much of Ariosto, certainly when compared with Virgil. In addition to the classical authors just mentioned, Montaigne loved the playwrights Terence and Plautus.
These are the authors Montaigne loved most. As for other writers he likes and who “mix business with pleasure”, he mentions the philosophers Plutarch and Seneca first of all. Plutarch was a Greek, indeed, but La Boétie had translated some work by him, so he could read it in French. Montaigne read also Seneca’s Letters, which are still popular today. And he read Cicero, of course. He found his moral philosophy especially useful, but he disliked his style of writing.
The last category of books Montaigne mentions is historiography. These books are pleasant and easy to read and they show how man is. This is especially the case for bibliographies, which are his favourite books. Here he names Diogenes Laërtius, a biographer of Greek philosophers. However, most of all Montaigne recommends to read Caesar, not only in order to know the historical facts, but especially because of himself, since he outstrips all others in perfection – or at least this is what Montaigne thinks. But Montaigne read also work by his contemporary Jean Bodin, who was not so much a historian as well a political philosopher.Montaigne read these authors not only for his amusement and self-improvement, but we find many quotes from their works in his essays, especially from the classical authors. So although his books have been lost, from the Essays we know what Montaigne read and what he thought about what he read. There is a saying “Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are”. But shouldn’t we simply read the Essays in order to know who Montaigne was?