A few weeks ago I went along to the Sydney Writers Festival to see a panel of high profile journalists, writers and entertainers talk all things books; favourite book of the year, best section in the book shop, best film and theatre adaptations and so on.
The whole thing was entertaining and fun, but what I found most interesting was the conversation about the books they hadn’t read; the worthy tomes in unwrinkled jackets staring down from bookshelves in silent judgment.
It was a revelation to me that these intelligent, well read, well rounded individuals could have insecurities about books and authors they hadn’t read; that they could harbour secret fears they might not be smart enough to ‘get it’.
In his 16th century essay on books, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne set down his opinions on various writers, philosophers and poets, and was surprisingly candid about not ‘getting’ some works regarded as great by the experts. He didn’t seek to challenge the judgment of the experts, but rather to share his own reactions and tastes.
In the essay, Montaigne tells us has no patience for Ovid; Cicero is long winded and very tedious. He even admits, with “sacrilegious boldness,” to finding the dialogues of Plato “dull and heavy” and laments “so much time lost by a man who had so many better things to say.”
He claims he doesn’t mind if people think he’s ignorant for holding these views because he doesn’t consider himself an expert anyway. His aim in reading is “to become more wise, not more learned or eloquent.”
Montaigne reminds us that life is short and should not be wasted on books we neither understand nor enjoy, and perhaps most importantly, not to waste energy worrying that we aren’t smart or educated enough if we cannot engage with certain books.
I seek in the reading of books only to please myself…. I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading; after a charge or two, I give them over.
If one book does not please me, I take another.
Montaigne gives us proper philosophical backing not to force a book if it’s not enjoyable.
For some books it may be a matter of getting the timing right. The first time I attempted Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady it was slow and dense. When I reread it recently I found it different and was completely drawn in to Isabel’s world, perhaps because I can relate now to the themes of ambition, relationships, marriage, children etc.
The opposite is also true. As a teenager I found Wuthering Heights to be very moving and deep. Now it seems embarrassingly overwrought, though the language is beautiful as ever.
Other books just need to be given up altogether. For example, I have had to cut loose Oliver Twist after beginning and giving up so many times before.
Taking Montaigne’s lead, I will also admit that much as I enjoyed his essay on books, and also quite liked the ones on solitude and the inequalities between us, the language is generally difficult and I can’t get into most of them.
With him I say:
I could wish to have a more perfect knowledge of things, but I will not buy it so dear as it costs.
And so I’ve closed his book – no more Montaigne for me – and on to the next.