Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#16) — On Montaigne and how to remember the books you read

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On the ceiling beams of the Tower where he wrote his famous Essais, 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 (Naturalis Historia, ii. 7): “Solum certum nihil esse certi et homine nihil miserius aut superbius” (“It is only certain that nothing is certain, and that nothing is more proud or miserable than man”). (Phograph by Peter Webscott, 2013)

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On Montaigne and how to remember the books you read

“Montaigne complains unwearyingly of his bad memory,” Stefan Zweig wrote in his short biography of Michel de Montaigne. It is one of Zweig’s final works, written shortly before his suicide in 1942.

“He regards this — together with a certain idleness — as the real Achilles heel of his being. His faculty for perception, his discernment, is exceptional. What he sees, what he observes, what he recognizes, he does with the lightning eye of a falcon. But then he is too nonchalant, as he is ever reproaching himself, to order these discoveries in any systematic way, to expand on them in a logical sense, and, as soon as he grasps a thought, he loses it again, lets it drift away. He forgets the books he has read, has no memory for dates and misplaces the momentous events in his life. Like a river, all flows over him, leaving nothing behind: no deep conviction, not solid opinion, nothing fixed, nothing stable.”

Montaigne himself wrote, “Memory is a wonderfully useful tool, and without it judgement does its work with difficulty.” Adding, “it is entirely lacking in me.” And also, “There is no man who has less business talking about memory. For I recognise almost no trace of it in me, and I do not think there is another one in the world so monstrously deficient.”

Zweig continues: “This weakness, which Montaigne endlessly bemoans, is in fact his strength. An inability to remain fixed at a certain point allows him always to go further. With him nothing is ever set in stone. He never stops at the boundary of past experiences; he does not rest on his empiricism; he amasses no capital; before properly consuming them his spirit must acquire experiences over and again. So his life becomes an operation of perpetual renewal: ‘Unremittingly we begin our lives anew.’ The truths that he finds may in the coming months or even the coming years be truths no more. He must be forever searching. Thus is born a multitude of contradictions. Now he appears an Epicurean, now a Stoic, now a sceptic. He is at one and the same time all and nothing, always different and yet ever the same, the Montaigne of 1550, 1560, 1570, 1580, the Montaigne of yesterday.

Montaigne’s greatest pleasure is in the search, not the discovery. He is not one of those philosophers who seek the philosopher’s stone, the convenient formula. He cares not for dogma, precepts, and has a horror of definitive assertions: ‘Assert nothing audaciously, deny nothing frivolously.’ He has no defined destination. All roads are open to his pensée vagabonde. He is only a philosopher in the manner of Socrates, whom he revered above all others because he left behind no dogma, no teachings, no law, no system, only an example: the man who seeks himself in all and who seeks all in himself.”

Me, Myself, And I — What made Michel de Montaigne the first modern man?, by Jane Kramer. (Illustration by Floc’H for the New Yorker, 2009)

“You could call this intellectual free association,” Jane Kramer wrote in Me, Myself, And I (The New Yorker, September 2009), “but it is far too sterile a term for the mind of Michel de Montaigne running after itself, arguing against argument, reading his thoughts and his aging body at least as carefully as he reads his books. (His copy of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, at the Cambridge University Library, is filled with enough Latin and French margin notes to make a book themselves.) But he thinks of himself as a browser, and in a way he is, because, by his account, a couple of interesting thoughts or stories in one book will always remind him of something smarter, or more interesting — or, better still, contradictory — in another book, and he opens that.”

If, like Montaigne, you can’t remember the books you have read “any more than the meals [you] have eaten,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson has famously said, Shane Parrish offers some advice in How to Remember What You Read.

“Making notes is perhaps the single most important part of remembering what you read,” Parrish writes. “The best technique for notetaking is whichever one works for you and is easy to stick to. You need to create your own system. Some people prefer to record notes on index cards or in a commonplace book; others prefer a digital system. Notes are especially useful if you write on a regular basis, although everyone (not just writers) can benefit from making them. Start by writing a short summary of each chapter and transcribing any meaningful passages or phrases. If you are unsure how to simplify your thoughts, imagine that someone has just tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to explain the chapter you just finished reading. They have never read this book and lack any idea of the subject matter. How would you explain it to them?”

In This Simple Note-Taking Method Will Help You Read More (and remember what you’ve read), Ryan Holiday advises to make reading an active process. “Make notes and comments to yourself as you read (called ‘marginalia’). If you see an anecdote or quote you like, transfer it to a commonplace book and use a system to organize and store all of it.” Writing The Obstacle Is the Way only took a few months, because all the reading and research that went into writing this bestseller “were already there, systematized and ready to use, all thanks to my notecards and common place book,” Holiday says.

Otherwise, there’s always Seneca to turn to, who would not have been very keen on Umberto Eco called his ‘antilibrary.’ In his second letter to Lucilius, Seneca writes (Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, Letter 2, On Discursiveness in Reading, in a translation by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long):

“Be careful, though, about your reading in many authors and different types of books. It may be that there is something wayward and unstable in it. You must stay with a limited number of writers and be fed by them if you mean to derive anything that will dwell reliably with you. One who is everywhere is nowhere. Those who travel all the time find that they have many places to stay, but no friendships. The same thing necessarily happens to those who do not become intimate with any one author, but let everything rush right through them.”

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“One who is everywhere is nowhere.” — Seneca in ‘On Discursiveness in Reading,’ his second letter to Lucilius

“Montaigne always complained of his ‘monstrously deficient’ memory, so he didn’t bother accumulating facts, Ms. Bakewell explained. Much more important was the exposure to someone else’s experience and perspective. Reading and forgetting ‘let him follow his own thoughts wherever they led,’ she writes, ‘which was all he really wanted to do.’” — Patricia Cohen in Conversation Across Centuries With the Father of All Bloggers, her review for The New York Times of Sarah Bakewell’s book, How to Live (2010)

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