How Montaigne Manages to Knock Out Masterpieces Without Reading Others' Work
Montaigne is really an amazing pig of a man. In his essay on the Art of Conversation he admits to not having read for more than an hour in twenty years of life, and then to having read Tacitus' Histories in a sitting.
What a freak. First he only dabbles in books for 20 years then he reads a whole book in a sitting. And that whole book is TACITUS, for goodness sakes.
Then I got thinking. How can Montaigne be so brilliant if he hardly reads? Two answers: first, he has a very good memory; second, he marks up his books with great skill. I wonder if we still have books from his personal library 400 years later? I would love to take a peek.
Another question. When he suddenly devours a whole book, why does Montaigne choose Tacitus' Histories? He says he finds Tacitus highly amusing.
Thinking of Montaigne, I read Mortimer J. Adler on how to mark up a book, and he mentions marking up Plutarch's Lives. This sparked my interest. Evidently there is good reason to be scribbling in my Roman history collection!
So I went to the shelf, took out my Tacitus and a pencil, and on the bus today I marked up chapter one on the bus.
And you know what? Montaigne is right: Tacitus is a funny bugger. What he didn't tell me, though, is that Tacitus laughs at the darkest of ironies. And when Tacitus talks about the sinister Tiberius' ascession to power his humor is positively soviet. Tacitus, the Roman Dostoyevsky - who would've thought?