Montaigne’s library


I read yesterday that Montaigne had a library of 1,000 books, of which he was very proud. It was his retreat – the room he went to where he wanted to get away from things and write.

Machiavelli, too, had a study with a small collection of books he treasured, albeit a much smaller selection. Both, however, treasured the classic Greek and Roman authors, the wisdom of the ages.

One thousand books is a remarkable collection, given that printing was barely a century old, and books were still quite expensive. He would have treasured every volume and known each title by heart. His library was in a round tower, so he had the bookshelves specially built to fit against the curve of the walls.

On the ceiling beams, Montaigne had sayings carved into the wood; Latin and Greek quotes from the classical authors to inspire him. One of these is from Pliny the Elder:

Solum certum nihil esse certi, Et homine nihil miserius aut superbius.

Which in English reads: Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain, And nothing is more retched or arrogant than man.

I can imagine myself in that room, with its works by Seneca and Cicero and Catullus and Aristotle looking down on the writing desk where Montaigne sat. It’s peaceful to even imagine it.

I don’t know how many books are currently in my own personal library; perhaps five or six times that number, maybe more, and I have had many, many more books pass through it in my lifetime. Many of them are mass market paperbacks, but more are hardcovers. Some are treasures 75-100 years old. Some have been with me for many decades (and in my collection are some of my father’s boyhood books, like the Boy’s Own Annuals I used to read when I was a child).

While our libraries are vastly different in subject matter and content, I think I share Montaigne’s pride in having a good, well-rounded personal library.

Whenever I go to anyone’s house, I always check their bookshelves. It may be judgmental of me, but I measure people by their libraries. Not so much by subject, but rather by seeing that they like to read, and read a lot. And books are perfect conversation starters; no one is lost for a mutual topic when you can discuss a book or an author.

Many years ago, when I was doing freelance work for a Toronto computer company, the owner told me he hadn’t read a book in years. That affected me so deeply that I have never forgotten it. I don’t think I have ever been able to say I haven’t read a book in days, let alone years. What a sad, empty existence he must have had.