The World’s Saddest Book: A Review

No book, ancient or modern, serves as an apt comparison to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a literary monster which not only defies summary or explanation, but is also nearly impossible to read in a traditional sense. There are two viable methods for approaching Burton’s work: one (and this is perhaps the sane and sensible method) involves simply flipping it open from time to time and perusing it for anything of interest. You may open to a random page; you may consult the index; you may find your way into this literary labyrinth anyway you like, knowing that you may extract yourself any time at your leisure. The other method – sure to induce melancholy, if you were not already in its grip – is to make the heroic effort to plough through the book from cover to cover. I have tried both methods over the years, yet I found myself wholly unable to make substantial headway on it. This literary mass, this rudis indigestaque moles has been beckoning me for years, and so – being a wholly unreasonable person – I committed to setting myself about the plough, and for the past ten days have devoted all of my reading time to Burton. In one sense, I have spent a week and a half reading one book; in another, I have spent a week and a half reading everything that Burton ever read, at least in summary format. Burton himself freely acknowledges that his work is likely to cause a certain amount of cognitive and spiritual strain: “After a harsh and unpleasing discourse of melancholy, which hath hitherto molested your patience, and tired the author…” []

The Anatomy of Melancholy is a reader’s book, a writer’s book, a scholar’s book. Though I suspect that the material contained between its rather distantly-spaced covers is sufficiently broad that any reader would, perusing it long enough, find something which addressed their interests, it nevertheless remains true that the true bookworm – the helluo librorum – is the reader most likely to appreciate Burton’s approach. Burton is, through and through, a reader. There are moments at which his prose is worked up rather nicely (in particular in the lengthy prefatory section Democritus to the Reader), but substantial chunks of the book are little more than quotations or (what is still more frustrating now that many of Burton’s sources are not only out of print but perhaps even lost entirely) bare citations of works in rapid succession. These do not make for the most enlivening reading, especially if the book has begun to tax your mental stamina. Samuel Johnson famously claimed of The Anatomy of Melancholy that it was the only book which compelled him to wake up two hours early every morning to read it. Given Johnson’s own confession to reading books in an unsystematic and discursive way, in conjunction with his advice against reading a book for which you do not feel an immediate inclination, I suspect that Johnson went in for the purple passages more than anything.

On the topic of Johnson, it appears that the expression given to his aversion to nautical travel in Boswell’s Life may owe something to his reading of Burton. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, we read, “What is a ship but a prison?” [Part] Johnson, according to Boswell, claimed, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” To be sure, the parallel may be purely coincidental, but approaching Burton after having read through Boswell’s Life three times, I felt in some ill-defined way a continuity from Burton’s thought to Johnson’s.

Johnson’s primary criticism of the book, that “It is, perhaps, overloaded with quotation,” hits on exactly that part of the work which is most likely to trouble modern readers, while simultaneously being one of the work’s primary charms. Johnson’s assertion that “there is great spirit and great power in what Burton says, when he writes from his own mind,” seems true enough, but Burton’s original writing constitutes only a small portion of the total unwieldy mass of the book.

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And here it is that it becomes clear that the book’s primary appeal will be to other bookish types: there is something undeniably fascinating about the amount which Burton read, digested, and organized. He seems less a man than a machine. The book is divided into three overarching partitions, each of which is meticulously divided into sections, membra, subsections, and so on. This is all organized in that hyper systematized mode which was very much the fashi in the 17th century. The quotations are not simply a disordered mass; each of them is specifically and intentionally marshalled to illustrate some particular point. Burton has translated many of the Greek quotations into Latin, and has occasionally either modified the Latin quotations or slipped when citing them from memory.

No one could doubt the man’s Classical attainments, yet it is his general approach toward Classical quotation which fascinated me. Burton was the true polymath, and gathered together ancient, Medieval, and contemporary sources without explicitly or consciously discriminating between them. Burton’s polymathy cuts across time and disciplines, and the panoptic view of all subjects within The Anatomy reminds us just how silly the rigorous demarcation of intellectual disciplines can be. Burton had an admirable command of Classical literature which would shame many a Classicist today. One could use his book as a “crammer” for many of the most famous and well-loved of Classical references and quotations, and if it were not so hard, it could serve as a Classical education in miniature. But The Anatomy shares something in common with another monstrous work of English prose: Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When reading Gibbon, one must already be thoroughly steeped in ancient and medieval history and geography to fully appreciate much of the narrative. Similarly, much of The Anatomy is best appreciated if you have at least some grounding in Latin, and the Classical quotations are perhaps best appreciated when you recognize them, even if you find that you are no longer able to place them immediately.

Burton’s book is not simply a storehouse of quotation, but when asked what I was reading, I found that I had considerable difficulty describing the book, as it defies any attempt at non-pretentious summary. “You see, it is a book about everything and nothing…” Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is as a loose collection of about five or six thoughts on various topics, which are qualified by 1,200 pages of footnotes. Or perhaps it makes more sense to say that The Anatomy is a highly-systematized commonplace book, in which Burton occasionally adds commentary in his own voice. It contains little of what could be deemed original thought, yet it is very much sui generis and feels far more creative than it should.

The Anatomy is also Burton’s autobiography. He is the archetypal umbraticus doctor [cloistered pedant], who has lived his life ass to chair, elbows to desk, eyes to codex. He freely admits to having done nothing beyond study. Indeed, though he expatiates at some length on the topic of love, and adopts a rather polemical tone toward travel writers (claiming that he would set all of their geography straight if he had undertaken their voyages), he freely admits that he has never sampled from the gardens of Venus or ventured far beyond the library. Despite that apparent limitation, he bestrides the world of learning like a colossus, and seems to have become a man of the world without experience.

Burton does not always quote uncritically, and on occasion shows touches of a more progressive, humanistic understanding. In the early pages of his third partition, dealing with melancholy brought on by love, we read page after page of distilled misogyny from ancient to contemporary sources, focusing chiefly with what are perceived to be the manifest dangers and deformities of women. Yet, after collecting all of this together, Burton asks the reader not to impute misogyny to him – he claims that he is a mere compiler, and invites the reader to substitute “him” for “her” in all of his quoted passages, arguing that they would all be equally true with pronouns replaced, as reminders of how degraded all of humanity really is. But Burton certainly lapses into the prejudices of his time and place in the final portion of his book, in which he cites a heap of anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Muslim sources in his discussion of Religious Melancholy. The third partition is in many ways the least enjoyable, in part because it gives us a more reactionary, more ossified, more myopic and narrowly prejudicial Burton than the humorous cynic whom we encounter in the first. Our scholar is on far firmer footing when discussing such subjects as The Miseries of Scholars than when wading into the pangs of despised love, and in general his commentary on books reads far better than his commentary on life itself.

Ultimately, it is hard to determine how to approach and read The Anatomy. At times, the entire project seems like a ridiculous satire of itself, a monument to the absurdity not only of bookish learning, but of the whole of life. Burton wrote the book to work through his own melancholy, and yet, after well over 1,000 pages of modern text, no real progress seems to have been made toward understanding or treating it, even in a strictly theoretical way. It is as though Burton, in the character of Democritus Junior, winks at us from the pages and says, “Behold, dear reader, how I have wasted my life. Read this book, and know that yours has been wasted too.”

The Anatomy of Melancholy is torture to read from cover to cover, but it is exquisite torture, not without its gratifications. I confess that I feel that it took something from me to finish it all. Yet, having finished a cover-to-cover reading, I look forward to enjoying it for the rest of my life by flipping through it at random for scraps of erudition and delight. It is a wholly incomparable book, an entire liberal education in and of itself; and though it may actually induce melancholy or madness in the reader, no literary experience will ever rival this stupendous monument to the wonder, the thrill, and the vanity of scholarship.

2 thoughts on “The World’s Saddest Book: A Review

  1. Great review…it does everything a review should–it illustrates, explains, evaluates the product from the perspective of the author’s goals and from the reader’s reception….also, some more great prose there. I especially like “…exquisite torture”

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