Merry Wanderer of the Night + nonfiction

Montaigne Readalong Week Nine

The Montaigne Readalong is a year long project in which I try to read over 1,000 pages of Montaigne's essays. Every Monday I write about the essays I read for the week. You can share your thoughts or join the readalong if you'd like, just check the Montaigne Readalong schedule. You can read several of these essays for free on Google Books or subscribe to Montaigne's essays on Daily Lit.

Essays Read this Week:
1. On moderation
2. On the Cannibals

Favorite Quotations:
"True victory lies in your role in the conflict, not in coming through safely: it consists in the honour of battling bravely battling through." (On the Cannibals)

"I wish everyone would write only what he knows--not in this matter only but in all others. A man may well have detailed knowledge or experience of the nature of one particular river or stream, yet about all the others he knows only what everyone else does; but in order to trot out his little scrap of knowledge he will write a book on the whole physics! From this vice many inconveniences arise." (On the Cannibals)

General Thoughts:
On the Cannibals is frequently taught in nonfiction writing classes, or at least it is at Iowa, which is why it makes me think not so much about the essay itself as nonfiction writing. That last quote in my favorite quotations about writing what you know, I think that is my biggest takeaway from this essay. Montaigne is really interested in judgement and the the human tendency to think there is only one way to do something. Your way. Culture to culture we all do things a little differently and it's easy to think of the world only in your terms. I think part of what essays do is help the writer recognize the way he or she does something while still pushing their boundaries and looking at how others might do it.

So then how do you write about your experience in another culture and still acknowledge that you are not an expert on that culture? This seems to be a huge problem in travel writing. The best travel writing, I usually feel, is either completely inward or completely social. In the inward variety the author really doesn't experience much but rather writes about the displacement of being in another culture and ruminates on that. The more social kind involves the writer talking to people of that culture but acknowledging his or her outsider status and understanding.

I am struggling with this quote a little bit because it doesn't acknowledge the writer's ability to go seek out first hand knowledge from an expert. Maybe I'm struggling because I become annoyed by people who do very little research and try to pass themselves off as experts. Part of the reason I love John McPhee is he always acknowledges how stupid he is on a given topic, even if he knows more than the average person. This seems like an extremely important aspect of essay writing--no wonder I'm pulling it from Montaigne.

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Montaigne Readalong Week Nine + nonfiction