Tuesday, July 15, 2014

montaigne #3: on reading

It's amazing to me how personal and unique the experience of reading really is. Reading can bring to anything to mind: brutal wars, torrid love affairs, journeys to exotic locales (including outer/inner space), or even Marvin Gaye singing the Star Spangled Banner at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. But mostly, reading is an imagined conversation. A short text is like passing someone in a hallway and getting a snippet of information ("Hey, how ya doin'?" "Fine.").  A medium-length text can be more enlightening or entertaining ("Dude, you wouldn't believe what happened last night!").  A longer text can feel like a relationship; when I finish a really good novel I feel a little wistful saying goodbye to characters who have managed to take on lives of their own and become "people" in my imagination. Experiencing all this without leaving my chair still surprises me with all sorts of thoughts and feelings I wouldn't have if I didn't read.

How do you feel about reading? [*Besides disliking school assignments. I think we can agree that none of us like being forced to do anything.  I'm asking about the reading you've sought out on your own. And if you haven't, it's time to start. Email me at dpreston.learning@gmail.com if you need help getting started.] How have your reading experiences (or lack of reading experiences) influenced the way you think and feel about reading? As you read Montaigne's ideas, think about how we can choose texts and design reading experiences this year that will make you a happier and more effective reader. I look forward to your comments.

Excerpt from:

Bakewell, Sarah. (2010). How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  New York: Other Press.

pp. 64-67

            The close grammatical study of Cicero and Horace almost killed Montaigne’s interest in literature before it was born.  But some of the teachers at the school helped keep it going, mainly by not taking more entertaining books out of the boy’s hands when they caught him reading them, and perhaps even by slipping a few more his way—doing this so discreetly that he could enjoy reading them without ceasing to feel like a rebel.
            One unsuitable text Montaigne discovered for himself at the age of seven or eight, and which changed his life, was Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  This tumbling cornucopia of stories about miraculous transformations among ancient gods and mortals was the closest thing the Renaissance had to a compendium of fairy tales.  As full of horrors and delights as a Grimm or Andersen, and quite unlike the texts of the schoolroom, it was the sort of thing an imaginative sixteenth-century boy could read with eyes rounded and fingers white-knuckled from gripping the covers too tightly.
            In Ovid, people change.  They turn into trees, animals, stars, bodies of water, or disembodied voices.  They alter sex; they become werewolves.  A woman called Scylla enters a poisonous pool and sees each of her limbs turn into a dog-like monster from which she cannot pull away because the monsters are also her.  The hunter Actaeon is changed into a stag, and his own hunting-dogs chase him down.  Icarus flies so high that the sun burns him.  A king and a queen turn into two mountains.  The nymph Samacis plunges herself into the pool where the beautiful Hermaphroditus is bathing, and wraps herself around him like a squid holding fast to its prey, until her flesh melts into his and the two become one person, half male, half female.  Once a taste of this sort of thing had started him off, Montaigne galloped through other books similarly full of good stories: Virgil’s Aeneid, then Terence, Platusm and various modern Italian comedies.  He learned, in defiance of school policy, to associate reading with excitement.  It was the one positive thing to come out of his time there.  (“But, Montaigne adds, “for all that, it was still school.”)
            ...He loved the way Plutarch assembled his work by stuffing in fistfuls of images, conversations, people, animals, and objects of all kinds, rather than by coldly arranging abstractions and arguments.  His writing is full of things, Montaigne pointed out.  If Plutarch wants to tell us that the trick in living well is to make the best of any situation, he does it by telling the story of a man who threw a stone at his dog, missed, hit his stepmother instead, and exclaimed, “Not so bad after all!”  Or, if he wanted to show us how we tend to forget the good things in life and obsess only about the bad, he writes about flies landing on mirrors and sliding about on the smooth surface, unable to find a footing until they hit a rough area.  Plutarch leaves no neat endings, but he sows seeds from which whole worlds of inquiry can be developed.  He points where we can go if we like; he does not lead us, and it is up to us whether we obey or not.
            Montaigne also loved the strong sense of Plutarch’s own personality that comes across in his work: “I think I know him even into his soul.”  This was what Montaigne looked for in a book, just as people later looked for it in him: the feeling of meeting a real person across the centuries.  Reading Plutarch, he lost awareness of the gap in time that divided them—much bigger than the gap between Montaigne and us.  It does not matter, he wrote, whether a person one loves has been dead for fifteen hundred years or, like his own father at the time, eighteen years.  Both are equally remote; both are equally close.
            Montaigne’s merging of favorite authors with his own father says a lot about how he read: he took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family.


  1. When I was in sixth grade we dedicated an hour everyday after lunch to reading, I remember feeling the breeze from the fan and the quietness/stillness of the room as I slipped into a whole new world while staying planted in my seat. That was where my love of reading blossomed. I remember reading my favorite book, The Book Thief in a matter of a week or so. Now, I don't think I could even read a 500 or so page book in a month! I hardly ever read not because I don't love to but because I feel like I don't have time to read with all the chaos in my life. But as I reminisce on the vocabulary that I spoke and the messages the stories told me, I realize the importance reading has on learning and thinking in a new way. Based on the excerpt, I believe Montaigne loved books that didn't follow the traditional formula he enjoyed reading words that flowed like thoughts flowed in his head instead of reading a monotonous jumble of words that sounded too scripted. Just like spanish classes in school teach you the "proper" way to speak the language, yet no spanish speaker really talks so formally. Personally, I would feel like I was speaking to a robot and not having a real conversation. Montaigne enjoyed reading stories that felt like he was reading an actual conversation and not just some scripted robot narrating because he felt a personal connection to the story itself, making it easier to get lost in the book. Although he loved the "fairy tale" stories, they felt real to him by the way the author described the places, characters and events.

  2. Going as far back into my earliest memories, I can remember being read to. My mother always made the extra effort, whether she had just worked a 12 hour shift or not, to read to me and my brothers. My love for books and reading sprouted here. And with time it continued to grow, especially after being introduced to the magical world of Harry Potter. I honestly ate those books up, as a fifth grader I was intently determined to finish them in one sitting. I still remember that anticipating feeling in finally finding the next book in a series, after looking for it everywhere, the school library, the public library, and finally getting my hands around it!
    It simply amazes me how the mind can create intricate images based of a few words, sentences, chapters.. Currently I am reading a series, fiction, and every time I stop to work on something else I find myself thinking, "I need to get back to that show and finish it, I need to finish that movie," but in reality I am just speaking about the images within my mind.
    Like Montaigne I believe stories need to have "things," they need to de descriptive, include imagery, have (real and natural) dialogue and conversation and ultimately be a motely (of different 'things') to be amazing.
    Books have influenced me educationally as well. As a child, I didn't have an expansive vocabulary. So when I came across a new word, phrase, etc. I HAD to look it up. It was vital to my understanding of the story so I HAD to know every word. This eventually became a habit, big enough that I would carry my beloved book AND a dictionary. And I must admit that I still do that today!
    Books have taught me to be open-minded. If you step into the world of reading, as with anything else, with a closed mind you will soon find yourself to be bored, irritated, or about ready to quit and fail.
    Reading was a big part of my childhood, and it still is a big part of my life, I take every free moment to crack open a new book, one that isn't assigned, and I truly still enjoy engulfing myself into an entirely different world. I cannot comprehend why kids and teens find reading, whether for entertainment or studies, such a repulsive thing.. This could be a potentially good start for my "big question." (:

    1. Your mother is my hero. She gave you a gift that keeps on giving! I may ask you to help teach and I would love to see this blossom (to borrow Breanna's word above :) into a Big Question. Here's another possibility: What if most teens actually don't find reading naturally repulsive, but struggle for the same reasons Breanna mentioned-- what if people actually love reading but marketers, social pressures, and/or school policies push us to the point where we can't clear our minds long enough to sit and lose ourselves in a good book?