Saturday, March 10, 2007

Montesquieu's Library

The International Herald-Tribune has an article today on the continuing impact of Montesquieu (in France, at least): "You can hardly turn around in the Bordeaux area without bumping into a plaque, a statue or some other reminder of Montesquieu, a great thinker whose books inspired the American Constitution. The Lycée Montesquieu is around the corner from my home and I often have business on the rue Esprit des Lois, a street named for his masterwork, 'The Spirit of Laws.'

The whole piece is quite good, and worth reading, but the relevant paragraph for our purposes comes near the end:

"Montesquieu's library of 3,800 volumes, then one of Europe's largest private libraries, is preserved in the rare books department of Bordeaux's City Library. When I visited the collection recently and leafed through the works it was breathtaking to find scraps of paper inserted here and there with comments written in his own hand. 'He rarely made notes on the margins of the books themselves,' the curator, Hélène de Bellaigue, told me. 'He was a confirmed bibliophile.'"

This practice stands in stark contrast with our John Adams, who wrote so voluminously in his own books. If you haven't seen the new John Adams Library website, do stop by; you can examine digital and transcribed versions of most of his interesting and witty marginalia. It's interesting to me that Montesquieu opted for inserted notes, though - I do the same thing. I've never been able to comment inside the book itself; the only marks I generally make are light pencil corrections to errors I happen to notice.

At any rate, next time you're in Bordeaux, it sounds like Montesquieu's library might be a fascinating visit.

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