Jonathan Self: What I found out when I finally read a book I’d been meaning to read for 40 years

The author finally plucked up the courage to read Montaigne — here's what he made of it.

Although I have never noticed it before, my copy of P. G. Wodehouse’s The Luck of the Bodkins, a book I have read perhaps 40 times, happens to have exactly the same blue cloth cover as my copy of Les Essais de Montaigne, a book I have been meaning to read for some 40 years (like Saint Augustine, I have frequently prayed: ‘Oh Lord, let me study the great classics, but just not yet’).

The similarity was brought to my attention forcibly this week at the beginning of a long and solitary train journey. Opening the only book I had brought with me, I was horrified to read not, as I had expected: ‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French’, but some actual French: ‘La plus commune façon d’amollir les coeurs de ceux qu’on a offensez, lors qu’ayant la vengeance en main, ils nous tiennent à leur mercy, c’est de les esmouvoir par submission à commiseration et à pitié.’

Still, we Selfs can take le rugueux avec le lisse and I spent a tolerably happy few hours trying to get to grips with the man attributed with inventing the essay, a word that comes from ‘to try’ in French — in the sense of an experimental effort. Montaigne experimented with a wide range of subjects, from cannibalism to why people wear clothes, and from the inconvenience of greatness (chance would be a fine thing) to thumbs. He could be witty, too. My regular bursts of laughter at his text — ‘It is no hard matter to get children; but after they are born, then begins the trouble’; ‘There is little less trouble in governing a private family than a whole kingdom’; ‘Doctors are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures’ — caused other passengers to stare.

Where I found him most insightful, however, was on the topic of conversation. Montaigne maintained that ‘the most fruitful and natural play of the mind is in conversation’ and I am inclined to agree with him. One of my greatest pleasures in life is conversing, especially with Rose, my wife. It is our habit to go out for lunch or a drink together several times a week and, as we chat away, we often observe with sadness and, I must confess, a certain complacency, couples sitting in stony silence or, worse, ignoring each other as they scroll on their telephones.

Socialising again after several years of barely seeing a soul (first because of my pesky health, then because of the pesky pandemic), I have been struck by how few people seem to understand the art of conversation, by which I mean showing an interest in others, listening to what they say, raising subjects likely to appeal and exchanging ideas. An art in which it is acceptable to argue — ‘There is,’ as Montaigne himself famously said, ‘no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees’ — but not to become irate. Indeed, my impression of almost everyone I have met recently is that they are predominantly concerned with themselves and their opinions are largely fixed.

Had I had a conversable companion for my trip, we could have discussed this and whatever else we fancied, surely with the approval of the great philosopher. As he said: ‘Studying books has a languid feeble motion, whereas conversation provides teaching and exercise all at once.’