Philosophy in the Farmyard: Perry channels French philosopher in latest book

BJ Hollars, photos by Andrea Paulseth

PUTTING DESCARTES BEFORE THE HORSE? In his latest book, best-selling author Michael Perry compares notes with 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. In addition to his nonfiction, Perry has written a novel and a young adult book and served as narrator for the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival.
PUTTING DESCARTES BEFORE THE HORSE? In his latest book, best-selling author Michael Perry compares notes with 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. In addition to his nonfiction, Perry has written a novel and a young adult book and served as narrator for the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival.

Some sing to the muses for inspiration, others pass a kidney stone. In his latest book, Montaigne in Barn Boots, Michael Perry found inspiration in the latter. While writing an essay on the excruciating experience, he came upon the work of a 16th century French philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne, who himself knew a thing or two about passing the dreaded stones. With one commonality confirmed, Perry set out to discover others. On the outset, it seemed the pair mightn’t have shared much (“[Montaigne] is permanently deceased in France; I am temporarily alive in Wisconsin”), though, in fact, the odd bedfellows had much to discuss. 

On the outset, it seemed the pair mightn’t have shared much (“[Montaigne] is permanently deceased in France; I am temporarily alive in Wisconsin”), though, in fact, the odd bedfellows had much to discuss.

Through Montaigne’s lens, Perry explores a range of topics: from race, privilege, technology, and marriage, to pig farming, firefighting, and sex. Perry – a New York Times bestselling author who lives in rural Fall Creek – offers a good-faith grappling with each subject, all the while toggling between the castle towers of 16th century France and the pig pen outside his window. In doing so, he introduces readers to a man whose philosophies are timelier than ever. Montaigne (who Perry calls “a paragon of fair-minded uncertainty”) is precisely what the 21st century needs: a humble ponderer amid the blowhards on cable news. “My fondness for Montaigne lies in his willingness to converse about anything – from faith to farts and everything in between – in the hope of learning something rather than proving something,” Perry explains.  In that spirit, Perry writes of Montaigne the way Montaigne wrote of his subjects, “in terms of exploration rather than declaration.”

Surely some academic somewhere will take issue with Perry’s approach to Montaigne – too many electrified pig fencer and not enough footnotes.  (For those keeping count at home, there are, in fact, 55 footnotes, and all of them hilarious.) Yet Perry couldn’t have been clearer in his intentions: this is a book for everyone, from pig farmers to PhDs. He remarks, too, that Montaigne himself likely saw “no reason the dude cheering the demolition derby might not also have an interest in existentialism.” Make no mistake: Perry is that dude. Which makes him the perfect guide to lead us through the tangles of philosophy. Not as a pontificator (“As a debater I am a bag of cotton candy”), but as someone whose sincere curiosity awakens and inspires our own. 

In some ways, Montaigne in Barn Boots may seem a departure from Perry’s previous work. But for me, it seems a natural extension. Perry possesses the unique gift of turning the mundane into something just shy of revelatory – a trick he pulls off yet again. By employing his folksy charm to a new subject, Perry asks us to consider some of the most vital conversations of our time, as well as our place within them. Each turned page is an opportunity to self-reflect, to strive toward the same “incremental self-improvement” that pushes Perry forward.

Of the many lessons Montaigne offers the modern reader, perhaps the most essential is that “the world improves when we lend an ear to our neighbors rather than the man screeching from a distance.” It’s a lesson gleaned from Perry’s past books as well, though it takes on new urgency today, a time in which our fractured political scene seems to have seeped into the very soil we share. Yet if Perry can find common ground with a long-dead French nobleman, perhaps there’s hope for the rest of us.

Kidney stones are one way to bring people together.  But a simple “hello” might do, too.

Perry will celebrate the release of his new book at 7pm Wednesday, Nov. 8, in the Volume One Gallery at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St. The book will also be available via the author’s website (sneezingcow.com) and through other online and brick-and-mortar retailers.

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BJ Hollars  author

B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds and From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a ...

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