Montaigne's Library

This is where the books go.

How do you say, “Reader’s Digest” in German?

When I was writing biographies or essays, I always felt an urge to explore the motives, or lack of motives, that made my subjects act as they did in the context of their own time. So sometimes, when I was in a thoughtful mood, I could not help wondering what exactly it was that made my books so unexpectedly popular. In the last resort, I think it arose from a personal flaw in me—I am an impatient, temperamental reader. Anything long-winded, high-flown or gushing irritates me, so does everything that is vague and indistinct, in fact anything that unnecessarily holds the reader up, whether in a novel, a biography or an intellectual argument. A book really satisfies me only if it maintains its pace page after page, carrying readers breathlessly along to the end… . I have often suggested a bold idea of mine to publishers—why not bring out a series of the great works of international literature, from Homer through Balzac and Dostoevsky to Mann’s The Magic Mountain, with the unnecessary parts cut?

Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

Freedom is

Nothing was so disastrous for the German Republic as its idealistic attempt to leave the people and even its enemies their liberty. The orderly German nation did not know what to do with its liberty, and was already looking impatiently for someone to take it away again.

—Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

Culcha

What does culture mean but taking the raw material of life and enticing from it its finest, most delicate and subtle aspects by means of art and love?

—Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

One-nothing

When the sixties were over, when the hemlines came down and the colors of the clothes went murky and everybody wore makeup that was supposed to look like you had no makeup on, when tatters and patches had had their day and the outlines of the Nixonian Repression were clear enough even for the most gaga of hippie optimists to see, it was then, facing into the deep autumnal wind of what was coming, that she thought, Here, finally — here’s my Woodstock, my golden age of rock and roll, my acid adventures, my Revolution. Come into her own at last, street-legal, full-auto qualified, she understood her particular servitude as the freedom, granted to a few, to act outside warrants and charters, to ignore history and the dead, to imagine no future, no yet-to-be-born, to be able simply to go on defining moments only, purely, by the action that filled them. Here was world of simplicity and certainty no acidhead, no revolutionary anarchist would ever find, a world based on the one and zero of life and death. Minimal, beautiful. The patterns of lives and deaths… .

—Thomas Pynchon, Vineland

Books for company

He had no friends, and for the first time in his life he became aware of loneliness. Sometimes, in his attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows. If he stared long and intently, the darkness gathered into a light, which took the insubstantial shape of what he had been reading. And he would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day in class when Archer Sloane had spoken to him. The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape, and had no wish to escape. Tristan, Iseult the fair, walked before him; Paolo and Francesca whirled in the glowing dark; Helen and bright Paris, their faces bitter with consequence, rose from the gloom. And he was with them in a way that he could never be with his fellows who went from class to class, who found a local habitation in a large university in Columbia, Missouri, and who walked unheeding in a midwestern air.

—John Williams, Stoner

Better to give

He smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love.

But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to them knowledge that had been revealed to him — how many years ago? — by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but a matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or two a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.

—John Williams, Stoner

I love my library

As he worked on the room, and as it began slowly to take a shape, he realized that for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study. As he sanded the old boards for his bookcases, and saw the surface roughnesses disappear, the gray weathering flake way to the essential wood and finally to a rich purity of grain and texture — as he repaid his furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.

—John Williams, Stoner

I Want To Know What Love Is

In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.

—John Williams, Stoner

Caius lives

Ivan Ilyich saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair.

In the depths of his soul Ivan Ilyich knew that he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to it, he simply did not, he could not possibly understand it.

The example of a syllogism he had studied in Kiesewetter’s logic — Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal — had seemed to him all his life to be correct only in relation to Caius, but by no means to himself. For the man Caius, man in general, it was perfectly correct; but he was not Caius and not man in general, he had always been quite, quite separate from all other beings; he was Vanya, with mama, with papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with toys, the coachman, with a nanny, then with Katenka, with all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, youth. Was it for Caius, the smell of the striped leather ball that Vanya had loved so much? Was it Caius who had kissed his mother’s hand like that, and was it for Caius that the silk fold of his mother’s dress had rustled like that? Was it he who had mutinied against bad food in law school? Was it Caius who had been in love like that? Was it Caius who could conduct a court session like that?

And Caius is indeed mortal, and it’s right that he die, but for me, Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all my feelings and thoughts — for me it’s another matter. And it cannot be that I should die. It would be too terrible.

—Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Some will last, some will just be now-and-thens

I never exchanged another word with the Colonel. He has no significance at all in what happened during my stay in Oxgodby. As far as I’m concerned he might just as well have gone round the corner and died. But that goes for most of us, doesn’t it? We look blankly at each other. Here I am, here you are. What are we doing here? What do you suppose it’s all about? Let’s dream on. Yes, that’s my Dad and Mum over there on the piano top. My eldest boy is on the mantelpiece. That cushion cover was embroidered by my cousin Sarah only a month before she passed on. I go to work at eight and come home at five-thirty. When I retire they’ll give me a clock — with my name engraved on the back. Now you know all about me. Go away: I’ve forgotten you already.

—JL Carr, A Month in the Country