Doug Bruns

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The Most Influential Book

In Books, Reading, Uncategorized on February 10, 2019 at 3:38 pm
Château de Montaigne where the Essays where written.

I was recently asked about the book that has exerted the most influence over me. This is a big question, as I’ve been a reader all of my life. I’m no longer a young man and that means a lot of books have contributed to my reading life. Many of them have had an influence over me. For instance, I remember reading Mark Twain as a little boy. I consumed everything he wrote. He made me want to be a writer. Of course, the social and cultural implications of his books were lost on me. Instead, I was reading for the great stories and adventures. Huck and Jim flowing down the Mississippi. Tom and Becky in the cave, and so on. Twain taught me to love reading. Later, as an adolescent, it was Henry David Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify,” he counseled. I only wish I’d followed his advice earlier. Thoreau, among others, taught me to love ideas. As a young man I set upon a self-defined course of reading, the design of which was to consume what I deemed to be the so-called important books, particularly of the modern era. Joyce, and Proust, for instance.

But the question remains. What single book has exerted the most influence over me? I was recently discussing the desert island idea with a reader friend. You know, what five books would you want if stranded on a desert island? I spent a good bit of time considering this. Here’s my list of five desert island books: Moby Dick, Walden, Plutarch’s Lives, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Montaigne’s Essays. These are the books with which I could spend the last of my days and be satisfied — as satisfied as one can be, that is, stranded on a desert island. While compiling my list it occurred to me: The book exerting the most influence over my life is Montaigne’s Essays.

The Master and his book.

To me, the Essays, contain all the essential knowledge and information necessary to being a good human being. They point to beauty, the human condition, history, philosophy, to the meaning of life, and so on. I am not, of course, unique in this evaluation. The Essays have withstood the test of time for a reason. (They were written in the 16th century.) But the influence, for me, extends far beyond the normally recognized genius of the collection. Montaigne has been my guide and teacher. It was my Montaigne who told me that I should read Epictetus. And from there, like a spider plant sending out shoots, I sprang to Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch. He introduced me to his friend Seneca and from there I moved on to Tacitus, then Gibbons. But Montaigne’s influence worked in another direction too.

E.B. White at work in his Maine boathouse.

Several years ago while browsing in a used bookstore, I opened a copy of the Essays of E.B.White. I read the introduction where White discusses the challenges of being an essayist. The intro includes the sentence, “But when I am discouraged or downcast I need only fling open the door of my closet, and there, hidden behind everything else, hangs the mantle of Michel de Montaigne, smelling slightly of camphor.” I bought and consumed the book, in the assurance of Montaigne’s approval. Consequently, I not only become a life-long E.B. White fan, but he influenced me (and by implied determinism, Montaigne influenced me) to move to Maine after reading his collection, One Man’s Meat. Maine changed my life. And so it goes on, the influence.

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In both Eastern and Western ancient culture, wisdom represents the culmination of all virtue. Montaigne presents himself in a likewise manner to me. In all of literature (and history, and philosophy, and psychology…well, you get the picture), Montaigne represents the culmination of all that is of enduring value. “If others examined themselves attentively, as I do,” he wrote, “they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.” And for that I am grateful.