Saturday, June 11, 2011

About the Summer Reading & On Stream of Consciousness: Montaigne #1

This year’s summer reading is a mix of eras, styles, topics and genres. Pride & Prejudice is widely acknowledged as a classic masterpiece. As you read, think, and take notes on this book, pay close attention to how Jane Austen describes the details of marriage as a cultural custom and how she develops a conflict. What is it about her style that makes an “old” story so attractive to new audiences? (Pride & Prejudice was released as a feature film in 2005; give your imagination the chance to “see” the book first, then check out the movie’s imdb entry—does the cast look/act/speak as you imagined?)

Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible was published in 1998. Studying a contemporary author gives readers the chance to ask about the thinking behind the text (as they did in this BBC interview). How are the topics of gender, politics, religion, and social custom dealt with in this book? What similarities and differences do you see between Kingsolver’s writing and Austen’s?

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne is in a class by himself. You can’t escape the word essay in school, but the way we use it has nothing to do with the way Montaigne meant it when he titled his book Essays. In school the word suggests three paragraphs of tightly structured sentences with appropriate transitions sandwiched by an introduction and a conclusion. In Montaigne’s French, however, essays literally means “tries” or “attempts.” Today's world of first-person musings on blogs, texts, tweets and facebook pages was preceded by a world in which hardly anyone wrote this way. Montaigne was one of the earliest Western authors to try to capture and organize his thoughts as they occurred.

In 2010 New York’s Other Press published a book by Sarah Bakewell entitled How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I’ve never met Ms. Bakewell, but after finishing the book I miss her. Reading How to Live while reading Montaigne’s Essays was like walking through a dark cave with a trusted guide who’s telling you all about what you can't see. Ms. Bakewell explained Montaigne’s writing in the context of his life. I understand Montaigne's ideas and his style more clearly because of Ms. Bakewell's descriptions of the people and events that influenced his thinking and approach to writing.

Following is the first of several excerpts from How to Live that may help shed some light on your reading of Montaigne. NOTE: These excerpts aren't written for children and they may contain words, names or ideas that are unfamiliar. Lector caveo. Yes, I could have been less annoying by avoiding the Latin and simply using the English, “Reader beware.” [And don't get the impression that I know more than a few phrases in Latin; I got this one from an online translator.] However, that would have failed to illustrate the point that there will be things in nearly every text we read that you won’t recognize, and that in the end you and you alone are responsible for making sure that you understand what you read. If you don’t get it all the first time around, or if you don't recognize names like Plutarch, Heraclitus or Seneca, congratulations: you're just like everyone else, including me, who examines something closely for the first time. Don't be shy about getting answers. Look up words and literary allusions, and make sure your references are credible (we'll discuss this further in class). Crowdsource by posting questions and ideas on the blog so we can respond. Send me an email at if you get stuck.

Because Montaigne’s writing is so different from a fictional narrative, we should examine it differently. Check the blog each Sunday night for a new topic to focus on as you read. See what insights you can unearth and think about how your notes (see previous post on Active Reading Notes) help you remember and organize the information you read. Post your ideas, observations, questions and criticisms (professionally, please) to the blog.

Each Friday I will read your posts and contribute to the thread. This is neither a formal assignment nor extra credit. (Possible Q: What’s in it for me? Certain A: 1) Getting a head start on mastering material we’ll need to accomplish our goals this year, including a 100% success rate on the AP Exam; 2) Meeting our colleagues and creating a sense of community to give us feedback and help us when we need it; and 3) Experiencing immediate success instead of just sitting around wishing we didn’t have to read.)

Here is the first excerpt from How to Live. I look forward to your thoughts and questions on this.

montaigne1 stream of consciousness


  1. Montaigne's example of the world being a cosmic wobble helped me understand what he was stating. His ideas are shared by many people, but he is unique in his ability to effectively express them. I myself have thought of similar philosophies, and it is amazing to see someone put it into words that everyone can comprehend. I look forward to reading the rest of his essays.

  2. Thanks for sharing that observation, Alex; the experience you describe is one of my favorite things about reading.

  3. Hah, Heraclitus needs to learn2quantum mechanics before he thinks his wealthy over privileged past allows him to be the most boring misanthropic "Greek philosopher".
    Also, Alex is a kwr.

    Welcome to the Internet, folks.

  4. I apologize if my colleague Unknown has given anyone a false impression of this thread or the Internet in general.

    This is a friendly place filled with smart people who are all trying to think better and achieve goals. Many of them took my World Literature class as sophomores and undoubtedly remember the first lesson of Logic 101: Avoid the ad hominem fallacy. Insults have no place in the search for understanding.

    Unknown, please identify yourself. That goes for everyone: how can I give credit where it's due if I don't know where it's due? If for privacy reasons you don't want to use your real name in your posting profile, please email me ( and we'll create a course ID name for you so that the people that matter know who we're "talking" to.

    We're all here for illumination and strong opinions are fair game. Be sure to explain why you think what you think, and stay open-minded enough to hear what others have to say. These attacks on Heraclitus cry out for explanation. Unknown, if you're serious, tell us why. Montaigne would've.

    Let's set a positive tone as students join the conversation, get to know each other and become more comfortable learning in a new way.