Montaigne's thought has so permeated contemporary philosophical, theological, and artistic discourse that it may seem much of his actual work need not be read, that it has been reiterated and reinvestigated so many times since – and by writers much more visible on the contemporary English-speakers' literary-historical map – that a deferral to his work would end up seeming somehow repetitive, as if it were intellectually derivative of or deferential to those whose thought he inspired and provoked. I have to admit to often feeling this way; and, being an abashed dilettante, I often refer to his writing more as a means of browsing than anything else: browsing for the impetus for his Essais, of locating the roots of and essential texts behind his erudition. More often than not, I find myself using the Essais almost as a library, as a source through which to only find further texts I should read.
He makes a terrific library, one perfectly suited for the autodidact or dilettante. While I can't claim to have completed a single essay of his, he has in turn directed me toward Diogenes and Lucretius, philosophers that my college experience had taunted me for not being better aware of but whom I likely never would have read without Montaigne's invigorating analyses and endorsements of them. His work is abundant in references to both the most eminent of philosophers and the most obscure; he discusses in tremendous and thrilling detail the work of lesser-known writers whose work it is nearly – if not entirely – impossible to find, but who invariably contributed works – often fascinating, often quaint and charming – of variously substantive subjects. The library into which he locked himself to write seems a fantastical place, where the gamut of philosophical works written before the 16th century, in all their bizarre variety, lay waiting to be read.
The complete text of his Essais is available in English-translation on Project Gutenberg here; the original French may be found here. Additionally, Ralph Waldo Emerson's tremendous essay on his work – and one similarly valuable as a library of sorts to the impatient or lazy autodidact – may be found here, and a wonderful and fun introductory essay to Montaigne may be found here, from the most recent issue of The New Yorker.