When I heard the news that Borders bookstore is going out of business, the first thing that I thought of is Kanye West’s song “All of the Lights.” A new footnote is required for future generations.
Public visitation/ We met at Borders/ Told her if she take me back/ I’ll be more supportive
I went to the Borders store in Lee’s Summit hoping to profit from the misfortune of others. But I found a store full of mere 10% discounts. One exception was the philosophy shelves and classical music CDs. 40% off those items. Someone concluded: we better give this stuff away unless we want to eat it. The moral of the story being: rarely, but sometimes, being an elitist snob is more affordable.
So I am now in posession of the Donald Frame translation of The Complete Works of Michel de Montaigne, a book I have been coveting for more than a year, but never so much to part with the fair market value of $35.
Monsieur Montaigne has been looming increasingly large in my life for several years. My journal for May 17th, 2006 notes: “I ate cereal for breakfast, had a hot shower and went out. Spent a great deal of time over a cup of coffee at Borders reading The Consolations of Philosophy. I will try to finish it while I am here.” I mentioned the hot shower because it was the first one I had enjoyed in quite a long while. I was in a Borders in New Zealand, on an week-long escape from Ha’apai, and The Consolations of Philosophy is a book that includes a lengthy section on the wisdom of Montaigne. I’m not sure how I had avoided reading him to that point, but a Borders store in Auckland was the place of my first encounter with Montaigne.
Years later, I remembered his name fondly and picked up a cheap translation of The Essays in Powell’s Bookstore in Portland. He made such a strong impression on me that I commented on it at the time. (And Powell’s made such a strong impression on me that I can’t be too sad about the demise of Borders; I’ve seen how good a bookstore can be.)
I’ve rarely had an almost fetish impulse to keep a particular book with me, in my company. I remember taking On the Road to London for my semester abroad. I must have known there would be copies available in England, but for some reason I thought to myself when packing, “This book is coming, too.” Hopefully, I might have outgrown such attachments by this time. But, I’ll admit, that cheap translation of Montaigne has been sitting in my truck since I brought it back from Portland almost two years ago. It’s there because I can read it on my lunch breaks, when I take my daughter to the park, or in traffic jams. But maybe also because Montaigne really is a charming sort of friend. I like having him around.
My wife took me to Borders for my previous birthday and I bought several literary journals for myself. One included an article by Sarah Bakewell about Montaigne. I learned that she had since put out a full biography of Montaigne titled How to Live?: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I inhaled that book, and every paragraph pissed me off on some level because I had been planning to write precisely that book – a freewheeling Montaigne-esque biography of Montaigne. Only an avid Montaigne reader would organize a biography in this way: one question (how to live?) and twenty attempts at an answer broken into chapters. And the format works remarkably well. Here are some of the chapter titles:
How to live? Don’t worry about death
How to live? Pay attention
How to live? Read a lot, forget most of what you read
How to live? Question everything
How to live? Keep a private room behind the shop
How to live? Be convivial: live with others
How to live? Do something no one has done before
How to live? Do a good job, but not too good a job
How to live? Give up control
How to live? Be ordinary and imperfect
How to live? Let life be its own answer
One may note the Stoic themes in all of this. Montaigne was Catholic and paid dutiful lip service to the church (while showing an uncanny ability in his time for getting along with Protestants and other kinds of misfits), but his guiding lights were the ancient Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics. He had their sayings inscribed on the beams of his study. His writings were eventually recognized as heretical and sat on the Index of Prohibited Books for 180 years. Montaigne, more than any other, transmitted Stoic philosophy from the ancients to us. It was he that led to my recent interest in Stoicism. Montaigne’s Essays are almost a modern Stoic’s New Testament.
Montaigne is more approachable than Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. For a man who lived in the 16th century, Montaigne is an easy person to befriend – because he is very forward with information about himself, including all of the personal and unflattering details. His impulse for paying attention to the present he applied most of all to himself. He used writing about himself as a Stoic “trick” for focusing his attention on the here and now. More than as creator of the essay, Sarah Bakewell has suggested thinking of Montaigne as a prototype of the blogger, Facebook or Twitter user:
This idea — writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity — has not existed forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person.
The trick works for me as well. Those times when I’ve bothered to document my thoughts about life, including its plain and ordinary aspects, I’ve felt a heightened sense of appreciation for life. When I look over the journals I kept in Tonga, or previous posts of this blog, I see a haphazard attempt to refocus my own attention on that which is easily taken for granted. Montaigne taught me – directly and indirectly – to think and write like this. He wrote in a meandering, always evolving manner about anything and everything that occurred to him, however mundane and trivial. “I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot publish,” he said. Or as Kanye West (see optional footnote below on Kanye West/Michel de Montaigne) would put it:
Turn up the lights in here, baby/ Extra bright, I want y’all to see this/ Turn up the lights in here, baby/ You know what I need/ Want you to see everything.
*Footnote on the causes of Borders’ failure
Their lack of a strong website and their relatively weak efforts to compete with Amazon and B&N on ebooks certainly played a role, but the best big-picture analysis I’ve seen for what went wrong (or was wrong) at Borders is here. A store manager would know.
The throw-away line about Borders in Kanye West’s song suggests why losing these stores will be sad for many people: more than a bookstore, Borders was a place where life happened (a role public libraries can and should be filling, provided they have adequate funding and that their administrators prioritize architectural and design costs necessary to create the kind of spaces where people want to meet, collaborate or just savor a moment).
*Optional footnote on the Kanye West/Michel de Montaigne comparison
I googled Kanye West and Michel de Montaigne together to see if anyone has occasioned to refer to them in the same breath. Indeed, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I even read occasionally, has explicitly compared the two here.
As I noted to T, Kanye is like Montaigne, who said of himself that he doesn’t record being, but passing. That is, Kanye’s raps aren’t about a static, fixed identity as much as they are about the passing flow of thoughts through our consciousness, thoughts that are wild and contradictory and hard to justify in the light of day. They pulse with love and seconds later hate. Our thoughts are all over the place: they surge with unrealistic ego and then punish us with unrealistic doubt. Ye’s line, “Have you ever had sex with a Pharoah/Iiii put the pussy in a sarcophagus” is to me a classic example of this twist: one moment of ego-tripping delusion of grandeur (I’m a Pharaoh!), followed by the stuttered, self-deflating ad absurdum retraction, including an anatomically dada image (how, exactly, does one put a pussy in a sarcophagus?).
So much for doing something no one has done before.