Thus gentle Reader my selfe am the ground-worke of my booke: It is then no reason thou shouldest employ thy time about so frivolous and vaine a subject. Therefore farewell. From Montaigne, the first of March. 1580. (Essais, ‘The author to the reader’, trans. Florio)

The Essais of Michel de Montaigne were printed in Bordeaux in 1580 and revised throughout the author’s lifetime. More properly understood as ‘trials’ or ‘attempts’ than essays in the modern sense, they cover an extraordinary range of subjects from friendship, philosophy and the fear of death, to conversation, cannibals and the custom of wearing clothes—all interspersed with absorbing personal details such as Montaigne’s struggle with painful kidney stones, his household, his sleeping habits or his preference for a particular kind of glass from which to drink.

In 2008 Cambridge University Library received the Montaigne Library of Gilbert de Botton (1935–2000), a remarkable collection of books connected with Montaigne, his life and times, and his library, including ten of Montaigne’s personal copies. This exhibition draws on the collection to celebrate a writer whose book has for more than four hundred years fascinated its readers with glimpses of the complex, subtle, shifting self it seeks to portray.