Sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne would not have felt out of place in the age of Instagram and Snapchat. An essayist par excellence, whose “essais” gave the form their name, Montaigne sought to present versions of himself to the reader on each page that he wrote; he shared everyday observations, anecdotes, recollections and confessions. What he affirmed on one day, or in one sentence, he would happily contradict in the next. This somewhat fragmentary self-presenting quality, according to US literary historian and early modern scholar Stephen Greenblatt, can be contrasted with Shakespeare’s emphasis on storytelling. Whereas Shakespeare was interested in the shape and trajectory of a life story — hiding himself behind the characters he created and their narratives — Montaigne sought momentary and continual self-exposure. Greenblatt sees a connection between this impulse and a driving force behind social media: “Turning the constant vicissitudes of your life into...

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