“I only quote others to better quote myself.”
—Michel de Montaigne
For many years now, it’s been my habit to write down my favorite quotes from the books I read. These can be passages that are particularly pungent, sentences with a memorable turn of phrase, or an insight that, for whatever reason, resonated with me. This collection of quotes has gradually grown into a sprawling mass, hundreds of pages long.
At present my hoard resembles an attic of precious jewelry, old antique furniture, forgotten knick-knacks, and fading photographs, collecting dust from age and neglect. It is time I put this attic into good order. To do this, I will select a quote I find especially appealing and write a short commentary on it, briefly explaining why I like it, what I think it means, and why I think it’s valuable.
This quote, by Montaigne, is the perfect place to start. On a verbal level, it is arresting because of his phrase “quote myself,” which is intentionally paradoxical. In my experience, this paradox is so true: We learn to express ourselves by imitating others. This is how we learn to speak, sing, paint, and write.
Montaigne did a great deal of quoting in his Essays, most often from ancient authors like Plutarch, Seneca, and Lucretius. Although the effect is sometimes pedantic, by the end you see how Montaigne’s style, tone, and perspective gradually emerges from these influences. He teaches himself how to write by selecting and digesting the writings of others. And this is what I hope to do, too.