Reading Montaigne in 2011

What is going on, culturally speaking, when a person finds themself reading a classic text from say the 16th century, like Montaigne’s Essays, in the form of a 21st century electronic book?

I’ve been thinking about Montaigne off and on since reading a recent essay by Michael Renov on first person documentaries, where he mentions the French essayist as a sort of ancestral paradigm for a certain kind of autobiographical documentary—like the work of Ross McElwee, say—which medidates on a life lived ‘through a succession of sallies (as Montaigne characterized these textual moves), providing multiple [and] even conflicting ideas about the self’.* I’ll come back to Montaigne in a moment. Enough to say for the moment that instead of dusting off the old copy somewhere on one of my shelves, I finally decided to download a free e-book edition to my ipad (which I wrote about here when I first got one).

There’s been a lot of talk about ebooks, for and against. Will they turn people on to reading more, thus countering some of the other tendencies associated with digital culture? Will they kill off printed books? What will they do to the publishing business? Why is the Kindle so successful (especially given that as a piece of hardware it’s pretty naff)?

Someone like myself does a lot of reading nowadays from the screen rather than paper. Not just emails, social media, blogs and the like, but documents of various kinds which I don’t want to waste paper by printing out. As an academic, I consult online repositories and also receive student work in electronic form; one of my main uses for the ipad is the ease of reading and commenting (I use it with a stylus, by the way) again without having to carry reams of paper back and forth. The advantage of a tablet (even more than a laptop) is that it sits below your eyes like a book, the age-old natural position for reading, rather than standing perpendicular in front of you like a desktop computer screen. (It’s OK writing in such a position, if you’re me, but sustained reading this way becomes tiring.)

I’ve also stopped buying a daily paper, which instead I read on the web with my morning coffee. I still buy paper copies of three or four weeklies or periodicals, which I mostly read on the tube or the bus, being one of those people who hates not having something to read in odd moments. Obviously a paperback also does the trick, as a large number of one’s fellow travellers evidently concur—roughly the same number that are listening to their ipod, or those who are otherwise engaged with their smart-phones—but an ipad or the like is ideal for long-distance travel (saves a lot of weight in your luggage). New media do not kill off old media, but take up space beside them (and frequently feed off them too, just as television feeds in part off cinema, and both feed on novels and the stage). This is not so much a new ecology of media and communication as a constantly shifting one, as new carriers emerge which do not supplant the old but redistribute attention, time, and purchasing power.

Montaigne would correctly express a reluctance to answer any of those questions too hastily, but he would also be writing a blog, in a lively literary style, always expressing scepticism and offering personal observations on how to survive the internet age of contradictory and ambiguous information in which for every reason or opinion given there is always an opposite reason or opinion. Other bloggers in this virtual world of literary history would include Bacon, Baudelaire and Wilde, Benjamin and Adorno and Orwell. This doesn’t mean they would have a large following—that would depend on their celebrity in the mainstream media. (Baudelaire and Wilde would doubtless be hugely successful, while Benjamin—in his children’s talks—and Orwell were both good on the radio.)

Is this too fanciful? Or perhaps an example of what Borges meant when he remarked somewhere that a writer like Kafka creates his own precursors? Or in this case, a genre, or rather, family of genres. Bacon described his Essays of 1597 as ‘fragments of my conceites’, which were taken from his commonplace books (which would nowadays reside on his laptop, or his ipad, with a copy in the cloud so he could even access it on his mobile phone). The feuilleton thus becomes the ancestor of the literary blog, and it’s easy to imagine Benjamin’s One Way Street or Adorno’s Minima Moralia as blogs of a rather arcane character. A blog is an ever-expanding series of fragments in which the linking element is the blogger’s personality. The individual’s confrontation with accumulating multiple and frequently conflicting ideas about the world, darts thrown into a virtual public sphere which never quite reach their target because the target is always receding.

Renov, in connection with documentary, goes on to note that ‘Montaigne’s pronouncement on the essayist’s double axis – the measure of sight (how one sees) always in tandem with the measure of things (what one sees) – puts us on the right track’. But that’s a subject for another time.

* Michael Renov, ‘First-person Films: Some Theses on Self-inscription’, in Rethinking Documentary, eds. Thomas Austin and Wilma de Jong, Open University Press, 2008

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One Response to Reading Montaigne in 2011

  1. Lionel Burman says:

    I think the printed book will remain, if only as an object with deeply felt and complex associations. A great advantage of ebooks, is the opportunity to read works which otherwise are only accessible in (often difficult to visit) libraries; for example I have recently been reading one of Hazlitt’s books in the 1st 1819 edition. In the case of Montaigne I expect it would be possible to read an otherwise somewhat rare work – his travel journals.