Le malade n’est pas à plaindre qui a la guarison en sa manche. — Montaigne, Les Essais, “De Trois Commerces”
“The sick man is not to be pitied who has his cure in his sleeve.” Or his books on his bookshelves, for that matter. Thus muses Michel de Montaigne in his essay on the commerce of reading. I must admit that up to now, I have not been too impressed by Montaigne the writer; the occasional aphorism notwithstanding, his writing and thinking sometimes seems higgledy-piggledy to me, and sometimes outright banal. What he has to say about the company of books, however, was well worthwhile:
In the experience and practice of this sentence [i.e. the above quotation], which is a very true one, all the benefit I reap from books consists; and yet I make as little use of it almost as those who know it not; I enjoy it as a miser does his money, in knowing that I may enjoy it when I please; my mind is satisfied with this right of possession. I never travel without books, either in peace or war; and yet I sometimes pass over several days, and sometimes months, without looking at them; I will read by and by, say I to myself, and rest content in this consideration, that I have them by me, to divert myself with them when I am so disposed, and call to mind what an ease and assistance they are to my life. ‘Tis the best viaticum I have yet found out for this human journey, and I very much pity those men of understanding who are unprovided with it. I rather accept of any sort of diversion, how light soever, in the feeling that this can never fail me.
We might dismiss this attitude as that of the book-fool, but I tend to agree with Montaigne that the sheer possession of books is comforting, soothing almost. Books are a reassuring presence; they invite you to converse with them, but they do not force you to; they promise an ailment to boredom, a promise to provide entertainment, knowledge, all that good stuff, and even a pearl of wisdom every now and then.
Reading “comforts me in my age and solitude,” writes Montaigne, “it eases of a troublesome weight of idleness, and it delivers me at all hours from company that I dislike.” Montaigne is not an obsessive-compulsive reader, but a common reader, ardent no doubt, and engaging and clever, but also leisurely, a reader who is well aware of reading’s place in his life, as well as its limitations and dangers:
Books have many charming qualities to such as know how to choose them; but every good has its ill; ’tis a pleasure that is not pure and unmixed an more than others; it has its inconveniences, and great ones too; the mind, indeed, is exercised by it, but the body, the care of which I have not forgotten, remains in the meantime without action, grows heavy and melancholy. I know no excess more prejudicial to me, nor more to be avoided in my declining age.
Lines such as these lead me to think that the comfort of books lies not only in their presence, but also in the knowledge that their authors can speak to us through the ages, and that — regardless of the fact that one of us read from a printed page sitting on a wooden chair, the other from a computer screen sitting on a couch — we have something in common.