I Did Not Know Montaigne from Adam

“Where the development of talent is concerned we are still in the food-gathering stage. We do not know how to grow it. Up to now in this country when one of the masses starts to write, paint, etc., it is because he happens to bump into the right accident. In my case the right accident happened in the 1930s. I had the habit of reading from childhood, but very little schooling. I spent half of my adult life as a migratory worker and the other half as a longshoreman. The Hitler decade started me thinking, but there is an enormous distance between thinking and the act of writing. I had to acquire a taste for a good sentence — taste it the way a child tastes candy — before I stumbled into writing. Here is how it happened. Late in 1936 I was on my way to do some placer mining near Nevada City, and I had a hunch that I would get snowbound. I had to get me something to read, something that would last me for a long time. So I stopped over in San Francisco to get a thick book. I did not really care what the book was about — history, theology, mathematics, farming, anything, so long as it was thick, had small print and, no pictures. There was at that time a large secondhand bookstore on Market Street called Lieberman’s and I went there to buy my book. I soon found one. It had about a thousand pages of small print and no pictures. The price was one dollar. The title page said these were The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. I knew what essays were but I did not know Montaigne from Adam. I put the book in my knapsack and caught the ferry to Sausalito. Sure enough, I got snowbound. I read the book three times until I knew it almost by heart. When I got back to the San Joaquin Valley I could not open my mouth without quoting Montaigne, and the fellows liked it. It got so whenever there was an argument about anything — women, money, animals, food, death—they would ask: ‘What does Montaigne say?’ Out came the book and I would find the right passage. I am quite sure that even now there must be a number of migratory workers up and down the San Joaquin Valley still quoting Montaigne. I ought to add that the Montaigne edition I had was the John Florio translation. The spelling was modem, but the style seventeenth century — the style of the King James Bible and of Bacon’s Essays. The sentences have hooks in them which stick in the-mind; they make platitudes sound as if they were new. Montaigne was not above anyone’s head. Once in a workers’ barrack near Stockton, the man in the next bunk picked up my Montaigne and read it for an hour or so. When he returned it he said: ‘Anyone can write a book like this’.”(Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time)