October 9, 2014 by libroshombre
“Gallivant” is my word for the week. It means “roaming about in search of pleasure, and that describes my general approach to self-education, but it’s moderated by my determination to read deeply.
Deep reading is a habit worth fostering. It’s defined in Wikipedia as “the intentional reduction in the speed of reading, carried out to increase comprehension or pleasure.” Grammar.About.com says “The term ‘deep reading’ was coined by Sven Birkerts in ‘The Gutenberg Elegies”: ‘Reading, because we control it, is adaptable to our needs and rhythms. We are free to indulge our subjective associative impulse; the term I coin for this is “deep reading”: the slow and meditative possession of a book.’”
Deep reading’s naturally appealing since I’ve always been a plodding reader. Years in front of library and office computer terminals made it increasingly difficult to really get into thought-provoking books without my mind skipping all around. All that computer-gazing re-wired my mind to focus more on skimming and identifying than comprehending. Gradually I’d get back in the flow of reading critically and thoughtfully, while still enjoying where the author was taking my imagination, but it took persistence. This was alarming, and to counteract it I turned to the guy known as “the sanest man ever,” creator of “the best prose ever,” and who was described by hyper-cynical and critical Ambrose Bierce as “the most delightful of essayists.” This is Michel de Montaigne, who lived in southern France in the 1500’s.
Montaigne had a fascinating life, but many reference sources’ descriptions are way too dry. Better than most is the Gale Online Encyclopedia, available through your public library’s website: “The inventor of the essay form as a literary genre, Montaigne raised introspection to the level of art in his monumental work ‘Les essais (1580; The Essays ).’ The French ‘essai’ means an experiment, test, or attempt, and such was Montaigne’s intention in his series of essays: to attempt to understand himself and, by extension, the human condition in a series of introspective “experiments.” Doesn’t sound much fun though, and seeing that “Essays” weighs in at well over a thousand pages, it’s fairly daunting.
“Don’t judge books by their covers” was never truer, as a glance at the table of contents reveals. The first eleven essays include Montaigne’s thoughts on cannibals, war-horses, age, drunkenness, and thumbs.” Reading Sarah Bakewell’s excellent biography, , “How to Live, Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer,” launched my appreciation. The other day I read essay number 39, “On the custom of wearing clothes,” translated by M.A. Screech. There are several good translations of Montaigne, but Screech’s modern interpretation makes him my favorite. In this instance Screech noted that Montaigne “makes a pun on the French taste for ‘bigarures,’ which means … both a medley of ‘sundry colours mingled together’ and a discourse ‘running oddly and fantastically, from one matter to another.’” Bigarures describes Montaigne’s essays to a “T,” and it also sums up these columns that I’ve written for over 30 years.
It also explains my affection for Lapham’s Quarterly. Lapham’s “is a literary magazine established in 2007 by former ‘Harper’s Magazine’ editor Lewis H. Lapham,as Wikipedia describes it. “Each issue examines a theme using primary source material from history.” Excerpts from prominent authors ancient and modern and wonderful three-sentence biographies incite further reading. “Together with the writing of the world’s great thinkers, each issue offers full-color reproductions of paintings by the world’s great painters.” The current issue focuses on “Time,” and its dozens of articles range widely in scope and are grouped under “Keeping and Killing,” “Making and Doing,” and “Spanning and Stopping.”
It’s such a cornucopia for active imaginations that I subscribed myself, even though such a marvelous example of intellectual stimulation is naturally found on the shelves of our public library, and back issues of Lapham’s can be checked out like books. It’s only one of oodles of other thoughtful, inspiring works placed there for booklovers who desire sharp minds and agree with Sven Birkerts when he said, “We don’t just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity.”