Reader Madness

    Reading can become a dope habit. Book-sickness is a modern ailment.

Henry Ford

St. Augustine liked to write. Or at least so we assume, on the basis of a corpus of writing so extensive that you would have had to start reading it at the time of Augustine’s death to have any hope of finishing it by today. But as anyone who spends any time writing will tell you, it takes a lot of reading to produce one written work, and so we may assume that Augustine liked to read as well. At any rate, reading was central to his conversion to Christianity, and the entire history of the Latin-speaking portion of the Christian church owes much of its direction to one act of inspired reading. Here is the story, as Augustine tells it:

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart. Then suddenly, I heard a voice from a nearby house of someone, perhaps a boy or girl, I don’t know, singing and repeating, ‘Pick it up and read. Pick it up and read.’ Immediately, my expression changed, and I began to think most intently whether children were accustomed to sing anything like that in the form of some game. It did not occur to me that I had ever heard anything like it, and so I suppressed the first motion of my tears and got up, understanding that I was divinely ordered to do none other than open my book and read the first chapter which I came upon.

I had heard of Antony that he was advised by reading from what he had come upon by chance in the New Testament, as if what he read was spoken to him: ‘Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.‘ Oh Lord, it was by such an oracle that he was immediately converted to you. And so, struck by what I heard, I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting, for it was there that I had placed the book of the apostle when I had gotten up. I grabbed it, opened it, and read in silence the first chapter on which my eyes fell: ‘Not in eating and drunkenness, not in fornication and shamefulness, not in strife and jealousy, but cloak yourself in the lord Jesus Christ and don’t concern yourself with the flesh in the midst of all your lust.‘

I did not want to read more, nor was it necessary. Indeed, immediately upon reaching the end of this sentence, as if with the light of security poured into my heart, all of the shadows of doubt fled away. [Confessions 8.12.29]

Augustine, Confessions 8.12.29

Almost 1,000 years later, Petrarch climbed with his brother to the top of Mt. Ventoux and cracked open his copy of Augustine’s Confessions. Like many writers before and after him, Petrarch was not one to miss the opportunity to exercise his authorial voice, and made the most of this moment. Some have doubted the theatrical details of Petrarch’s telling, but it makes for a scene to delight the heart of any literary enthusiast. Jakob Burkhardt seized upon this episode as particularly illustrative of the Renaissance spirit. He may have been mistaken in claiming that Petrarch was the first person in his time to climb a mountain recreationally, but both Burkhardt and Petrarch seemed to understand the climb and its attendant circumstances as marking an inflection point in intellectual history – in Petrarch’s case, he recognized the change wrought in him by the moment, and Burkhardt saw in the adventure the defining impetus of the early Renaissance.

Augustine and Petrarch’s remarkable reading experiences form a diptych dramatically united by Petrarch’s possession of a portable copy of Augustine’s Confessions on what might otherwise seem to be an adventure hardly conducive to serious reading. Yet in both cases, the course of intellectual history was bent not by dramatic new discoveries or inventions, nor by violent social or political upheaval. Each of these men changed the world with what began as simple acts of reading.

Just as Petrarch had a model for his own reading experience on Mt. Ventoux in the form of Augustine, so Augustine had before him the example of St. Ambrose, whom he had been acquainted with in Milan. While there are references to silent reading before Ambrose’s time, it was a sufficiently rare practice in antiquity to cause Augustine to remark upon it with wonder:

But when he [St. Ambrose] was reading, his eyes were lead along the pages and his heart was revealing their sense, but his voice and tongue maintained silence. Often, when we were in his presence (for he prohibited no one from coming in, nor was it his habit that an entrant should be announced to him), we would see him reading silently – never otherwise. After sitting in unbroken silence (who, indeed,would burden a man so intent on something?), we would leave him. We conjectured that when he had seized upon that small interval of time for rejuvenating his mind, taking a break from the tumult of other people’s affairs, he did not want to be summoned away to something else, so he took care lest some eavesdropper get caught up in it would hear something which the author of the book being read had expressed unclearly, thus making it necessary for Ambrose to explain and discuss various difficult questions. Then, by spending his free minutes on such a task, he would get through fewer books than he wished, even though the cause of preserving his voice, which was easily wrecked, had been a more just reason for reading silently. [Confessions 6.3]

Augustine, Confessions 6.3

Though Augustine was impressed by Ambrose’s silent reading, his own conversion in the garden involves him reading silentio (in silence), just as Ambrose had. If we are willing to grant the possibility that Augustine’s Confessions are composed with an ambitious dramatic framework in mind, then his wonder at Ambrose’s silent reading habits may be taken as a prelude meant to reinforce the seriousness of Augustine’s conversion. Ambrose reads silently because he is reading seriously. Thus, when Augustine picks up and reads in silence in the garden, we can be sure that he is now applying himself to the words of God with the same ardent zeal which Ambrose employed.

Ambrose is not only reading with focused intensity, he is also reading against the clock. Augustine suspects that Ambrose feared that he would not read as many books as he wished to read if he were interrupted by nagging questions. This frenetic urge to consume as much written material as possible is best exemplified by the reading habits of the elder Pliny:

Before daybreak, he would go to see the emperor Vespasian, who also liked to work at night, and then he would set about his assigned duty. Once he returned home, he gave the rest of his time up to study. Often, after eating (which, in the ancient way, was always light and sparing) he would lie in the summer sun if he had the leisure, and read a book which he annotated and excerpted from. He never read anything without at least making some notes: he was in the habit of saying that no book was so bad that it was not useful in at least some way. After the sun, he would wash in cold water, then eat and sleep a little bit; soon, as if it were a new day already, he would study again until dinnertime. While eating dinner, he would read and take notes in a cursory fashion. I remember that he was once reading out loud, and was asked by one of his friends to repeat what he had just recited; to this man, my uncle said, ‘Surely, you understood the meaning?’ When the friend said that he had, my uncle responded, ‘Why then did you ask me to repeat it? I have lost the time for reading ten more verses because of your interruption.’ Such was his parsimony of his time. In summer, he would leave the dinner table when it was still light out; in winter, within the first hour of night and as though he were compelled by some law.

He did all this amidst many labors, and the bustle of the city. In his retirement, the only time which he took away from his studies was in the bath-house (and when I say this, I mean the bath itself; when he was being oiled down or dried off, he would listen to or dictate something). When on the road, as though devoid of any other concerns, he had time for this alone: a secretary would be by his side with a book and some note-tablets, and this secretary would wear gloves in winter so that not even foul weather could snatch away any of his time for his studies. For this same reason, he was always carried in a chair when he was in Rome. I remember that one time, he asked me why I was walking. ‘You could have,’ he said, ‘avoided wasting these hours,’ for he thought that all time was wasted which was not spent on study.

Pliny, Letters 3.5

Ambrose and Pliny thus share the trait which marks out the true bibliomaniac: the conviction that the kinds of things which, for most people, make up ‘real life’ are in fact just distractions from life’s true purpose of infinite study. Augustine suspects that Ambrose may be afflicted by this kind of addiction to scholarly activity, but when he suggests that care of his voice would have been a “more just” reason for Ambrose’s silence, Augustine seems to hint at the whiff of impiety implied by Ambrose’s bibliomania. What would it matter how many books he had read through once he went to the heavenly kingdom?

But not all of the early church fathers could give up reading with the same renunciatory zeal which Augustine applied both to books and to sex. St. Jerome, like all of the educated men of his day, was educated on the pagan classics.

Suddenly, seized in spirit, I was dragged to the tribunal of the judge, where there was such light, such resplendence from the clarity of the bystanders, that as I was thrown upon the ground, I dared not look back up. When I was asked about my condition, I responded that I was a Christian. The one who was presiding said, ‘You lie! You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian! For where your treasure is, there too is your heart.’ I went silent, and in the midst of my beatings (for he had ordered me to be struck down), I was being tortured by the fire of conscience, thinking over that little verse, ‘Who shall confide in you in hell?’ I began to shout and say, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, have mercy on me!’ My voice resounded among the beatings. Finally, those who were standing by turned to the knees of the judge and prayed that he grant some pardon to my youth and accommodate some bit of penitence to my error, with the intention of exacting torture from me if I ever afterward read books of pagan literature. I, constricted by such a bind would have been willing to swear to even greater things. I began to swear, and calling upon his name, said, ‘Lord, if I ever have worldly books, if I ever read them, I have denied you!’ [Jerome, Epistula ad Eustochium 30]

Jerome, Epistula ad Eustochium 30

Although there were people like Jerome who still loved the classics despite their pagan origin, Augustine had no truck with them at all. Once his Christian conversion had been completed, Augustine could feel only contempt for this kind of reading, which he saw as a dangerous diversion from the path of faith:

Even now I have not yet sufficiently explored why I then hated the Greek literature on which with which I was glutted as a little boy. Indeed, I loved Latin literature – not the stuff which our elementary teachers taught us, but the stuff that we learned from the philologists. To tell the truth, I considered those first readings, where one learns to read and write and count, almost as burdensome and punishing as all of Greek literature. But what caused this, except the sinfulness and vanity of life, which made me nothing but flesh, a passing wind which never returned. Surely those first readings were better, because they were more certain; by their aid it was happening – has happened – that I am able to read if I come across some writing and I myself am able to write if I please. They were better, I say, than those in which I was compelled to remember the wanderings of some Aeneas, while forgetting of my own wanderings, and to bewail Dido’s death because she committed suicide, while in the midst of these trifles I, wretched as could be, allowed myself to die away from you with dry eyes.

Augustine, Confessions 1.13

For what could be more wretched than a wretch not pitying himself as he cries about the death of Dido, which came about from loving Aeneas, all the while not crying over his own death, which happens from not loving you, God, the light of my heart and the bread of the internal mouth of my soul and the virtue marrying together my mind and the breast of my thoughts? I did not love you, and I was fornicating away from you, and as I fornicated everyone shouted, ‘Great job, great job!’ The friendship of this world is a kind of fornication away from you, and the phrase ‘Great job, great job!’ is spoken so that one might feel shame if he does not conform. I did not weep over all of these things. Instead, I wept over Dido, now dead after seeking her end with the sword, while I myself followed the lowest things which you created as I, no more than dirt, hastened to the dirt myself. Were I prevented from reading those things, I would have grieved, because I had no reading material to grieve over. With such madness did I think that literature more noble and fruitful than the things which taught me to read and write.

Augustine was pained by the amount of his life which he had applied to the Greek and Latin classics. Jerome seems to have felt something similar to Augustine’s sentiment about the problematic status of pagan reading in a true Christian’s intellectual life, but he had an addiction to it which was apparently stronger than Augustine’s addiction to the brothels. Both of these men had a difficult relationship to the reading which formed the standard curriculum of their time, but Jerome was willing to suffer to keep on reading. Their goal in reading may have differed, but one cannot deny that Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome were all imbued with essentially the same spirit as Pliny the Elder.

In different ways but with similar intensity, each of these men approached reading as serious business, and applied themselves to it with a zeal that fostered biblio-neurosis. Pliny cannot give up a second of his time to non-lectorial pursuits; Ambrose regards personal interaction with other people as a distraction from serious thought; Augustine hates his early reading with the proselytizing zeal of the recent convert, and seems to be engaged in compensatory scribbling; Jerome felt that he loved the classics too much, and sought to punish himself for his indulgence. None of these men were engaged in leisurely reading, and none of them were doing anything like what we would recognize as reading for pleasure.

A few centuries after Petrarch’s religious reading experience on Mt. Ventoux, scholars of the early modern period took the obsession with reading to new heights. Isaac Casaubon did his best impression of Pliny:

Casaubon thought every moment lost in which he was not acquiring knowledge. He resented intrusion as a cruel injury. To take up his time was to rob him of his only property. Casaubon’s imagination was impressed in a painful degree with the truth of the dictum ‘ars longa, vita brevis.’

Pattison, Isaac Casaubon, pp.28-29

Anthony Grafton is fond of illustrating Casaubon’s intense devotion to study by noting that, after his death, it was discovered that Casaubon’s bladder was abnormally distended from retaining his lengthy reading sessions, which he was reluctant to break from even long enough to relieve his bladder.

*        *        *        *        *

Can people read themselves into madness? The most famous instance of this, in fiction, is of course Don Quixote. As the narrator, Cervantes even confesses to reading the scraps of paper which he finds in the streets. Ignatius J. Reilley, in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, is a modern Don Quixote who has addled his brain with a combination of Boethius, cinema, and American television. Even Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey owes much of her worldview to her obsession with the Gothic novel. Granted, these are fictional characters, but they represent a recognizable type.

That titan of American industry and anti-intellectualism, Henry Ford, thought that bibliomania was a harmful but largely novel phenomenon: “Reading can become a dope habit. Book-sickness is a modern ailment.” Perhaps if he had read a little more, he would have known that book-sickness was a very old ailment. Perhaps, too, he would have had sufficient vocabulary to improve upon the term ‘book-sickness’. Nevertheless, the problem which Ford observed afflicted real people as well as fictional characters, and there is no better example of the scholar who has read himself into madness than Robert Burton.

As a record of reading and madness, 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, 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 any way 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.

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, but this should be no surprise, because Burton has condensed a whole lifetime of reading into it. If we feel ourselves going mad reading it, then Burton has managed to communicate more than just his learning – he has shared with us his actual experience.

Ultimately, it is hard to determine how to approach and read The Antomy of Melancholy. 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 it 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 the disease, 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.”

In the book’s preface, bibliomaniacBurton laments his inability to keep up with the reading material of his time:

“What a company of poets hath this year brought out,” as Pliny complains to Sossius Sinesius. “This April every day some or other have recited.” What a catalogue of new books all this year, all this age (I say), have our Frankfort Marts, our domestic Marts brought out? Twice a year, Proferunt se nova ingenia et ostentant, we stretch our wits out, and set them to sale, magno conatu nihil agimus. So that which Gesner much desires, if a speedy reformation be not had, by some prince’s edicts and grave supervisors, to restrain this liberty, it will run on in infinitum. Quis tam avidus librorum helluo, who can read them? As already, we shall have a vast chaos and confusion of books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning. For my part I am one of the number, nos numerus sumus, (we are mere ciphers): I do not deny it, I have only this of Macrobius to say for myself, Omne meum, nihil meum, ’tis all mine, and none mine.

Thus, within the first few pages of his work, we sense that Burton is about to crack, that his frenetic and discursive prose style is the sign of a man whose mind has been wracked by nervous strain. The language here does not reflect a reader casually enjoying his books: Burton is oppressed, his eyes and fingers ache. And yet, for all of his reading and writing, he has failed to keep up with the profusion of learning in his time. Burton has read himself into madness. He tried to write himself out of it, but that just involved more reading.

*        *        *        *        *

‘No, Sir; I do not believe he studied hard. I never knew a man who studied hard. I conclude, indeed, from the effects, that some men have studied hard, as Bentley and Clarke.’

Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson was one of Burton’s biggest fans, and according to Boswell, The Anatomy of Melancholy was the only book which induced Johnson to wake up early. Yet, as readers, these two men were entirely unlike each other. While reading was a fraught and difficult activity for Burton, who strained under the old impulse to consume the sum total of learning, Johnson was happy to treat books like the buffet and sample what appealed to him. He was not afflicted by the kind of plodding, scholarly emphasis on thoroughness in his reading which characterized scholars of the previous generation,like Bentley, or even ancient forbears like Pliny. Yet, the ravenous appetite was still there, and just like Pliny, Johnson felt no compunction about mixing the pleasures of the desk with the pleasures of the table:

At Mr. Dilly’s to-day were Mrs. Knowles, the ingenious Quaker lady, Miss Seward, the poetess of Lichfield, the Reverend Dr. Mayo, and the Rev. Mr. Beresford, Tutor to the Duke of Bedford. Before dinner Dr. Johnson seized upon Mr. Charles Sheridan’s Account of the late Revolution in Sweden, and seemed to read it ravenously, as if he devoured it, which was to all appearance his method of studying. ‘He knows how to read better than any one (said Mrs. Knowles;) he gets at the substance of a book directly; he tears out the heart of it.’ He kept it wrapt up in the tablecloth in his lap during the time of dinner, from an avidity to have one entertainment in readiness when he should have finished another; resembling (if I may use so coarse a simile) a dog who holds a bone in his paws in reserve, while he eats something else which has been thrown to him.

There is something fitful and neurotic about Johnson’s manner of reading which makes him relatable to readers in the digital age. Burton forces him up in the morning with an excited passion. He draws up systematic programs for his own reading, but he can’t make his way through them. Indeed, by his own admission, he almost never read books in their entirety.

Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. JOHNSON. ‘I have looked into it.’ ‘What, (said Elphinston,) have you not read it through?’ Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, ‘No, Sir, do YOU read books THROUGH?’

He also feels the need to justify the content of his reading:

“What he read during these two years he told me, was not works of mere amusement, ‘not voyages and travels, but all literature, Sir, all ancient writers, all manly: though but little Greek, only some of Anacreon and Hesiod; but in this irregular manner (added he) I had looked into a great many books, which were not commonly known at the Universities, where they seldom read any books but what are put into their hands by their tutors; so that when I came to Oxford, Dr. Adams, now master of Pembroke College, told me I was the best qualified for the University that he had ever known come there.’”

Thus, unlike Burton, Johnson did not read himself into a state of book-addled madness. Nevertheless, his attitude toward and relationship with books was hardly as simple or as casual as his apparent scholarly sprezzatura would suggest. He did not scourge himself like Jerome, distend his bladder like Casaubon, or crack his mind like Burton, but for all of his apparent ease in the literary world, he was at least forming plans of systematized and all-encompassing reading. (Perhaps Johnson’s book neurosis can be tied to his guilt in failing to help his father at his book stall?) Even in the case of a man who seems to roam the literary world with such ease, we get the sense that Johnson was reading not for sheer enjoyment, but to achieve and prove something.

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Any surprise we may register at the nervous strain and compulsive, frenetic energy which many of these scholars applied to their reading may be due to the fact that reading is typically conceived of as an idle leisure activity. (The marketing of ‘beach reading’ does little to dispel this old notion.) No matter how intently I am reading a book on my balcony, passers-by feel no compunction about interrupting me either to ask what I am reading or to talk about something wholly unrelated. In his appearance on Talking in the Library with Clive James, Ian McEwan noted that, while people will not interrupt someone performing an obviously active task like playing tennis, there is no such reserve about interrupting someone in the middle of a book because reading is seen as a form of self-indulgent idleness.

In some ways, our age is more text-centric than any previous one, but the superabundance of text in our world means that each individual unit of it – an article, a book, even an advertisement – is comparatively less significant. When books were copied by hand and consequently rather expensive to produce, a much higher premium was placed upon eking out every last bit of value from every line. But in a world in which it would be impossible even to read all of the “canonical” literature available to us (even if we were to read like Casaubon), we feel comparatively little incentive to re-read or internalize any of what we consume. Thus, we experience a kind of poverty produced by abundance.

Despite alarmist scares about the death of literacy or the death of the book, I suspect that the overall percentage of the population engaged in serious reading has not declined much, if only because it was never very high to begin with. It is easy to get the impression that other historical periods were hyper-literate, if for no other reason than because, at a time when all records took the form of written text, only writing and the things interesting to writers would be transmitted to posterity. Even when a writer records or complains about sub-literacy, it feels like something literary after begin given the old authorial treatment. It is likely a historical accident that during the 19th century, mass literacy made a significant forward stride at the same time that working people gained disposable income and leisure time. The triple-decker novels of Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope would not have been commercial successes if Victorian England had access to radio or TV.

Reading is at times a curiously onanistic activity, and serious readers are often attracted to books about the act of reading itself. I do not actively seek these out, but I confess that I read every one of them that I stumble upon with rapt interest, as though histories of reading were themselves the most interesting reading material. In her reading memoir, Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman recalls that her obsession with reading once drove her to work through a car owner’s manual in the absence of any other reading material to hand. This reminded me of my own experience reading the backs of cereal boxes as a kid. There was nothing to them – they are of course just advertisements for the very cereal which you are already consuming. Yet it always seemed a terrible waste not to read something while tearing apart the roof of my mouth with Oreo-O’s or Cap’n Crunch.

*        *        *        *        *

I have never heard a child’s voice in a garden urging me to read, nor have I ever climbed Mt. Ventoux with a copy of Augustine. But one beautiful summer afternoon, I was outside St. Emmeram’s Abbey in Regensburg when my attention was seized by the following epigraph upon a wall:

Traveler, you have not yet read enough! Read further, or rather, write: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for the souls of the just stand in the hand of God, though their bodies lay in the bosom of the earth.

I have read through countless funerary inscriptions without thinking of them as more than idle rhetorical exercises, but this one immediately sent the shiver down my skin and the tears down my cheeks. No doubt, the formulation is more prosaic in intent than my initial reception would have it, but the words felt so deliberately pointed to all that I worry most about. You have not yet read enough. So much of my life has been devoted to bookishness and the projects of reading which Johnson so liked to formulate that I read in this statement a most potent memento mori: I have not read enough, and I have not lived enough.

Once, after a particularly heroic day of reading from dawn until dusk, Casaubon noted in his diary “Iam vixi”, “Now I have lived!” For those afflicted with bibliomania, the equation of reading and life is an easy one to make. Ecclesiastes tells us that “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” How many books I have somewhere inside of me, ready to be written! Yet, there is not only no end of making books – there is no beginning, either. How can I begin to write before I have surveyed all that has already been written? My avidity for books thus curses me with a kind of sterility.

The infinity of the written record itself is the most potent reminder of my own limited life. Greek and Roman poets typically hoped to achieve a kind of immortality through their works, and even Thucydides boldly called his writings a possession for all time. But Johnson notes that the library is the greatest testament to human vanity: so many monuments to entire lifetimes of reading, writing, and scholarly toil, and yet how often are they read? Did the authors read all that they had hoped to read, or write all that they had hoped to write? Even after Herculean lexical labor, when they had turned their minds into immense storehouses of erudition, even the most brilliant and well-read scholars died. Some few scraps remain from the treasury, if we care to read them; but the well furnished minds themselves have become just as barren and empty as if they had never read a book, or had never been born.

Even as I write, I wonder what wonderful worlds I will never visit as I lose time that could have otherwise been spent in reading. Tennyson’s Ulysses was right: “Life piled on life were all too little, and of one to me, little remains…” It’s no wonder that Burton suffered from melancholy – look at how much he read. Even if I achieved that breadth of reading, I would one day find myself at the end of my life, praying to draw one more breath, to read one more book, and I would know that the words carved in stone to commemorate the strengthless dead were meant for me: You have not yet read enough.

I read every day because I want to, but also because I feel that I have to. There lingers somewhere deep in the very constitution of my conscience a sense that the time which is not spent reading and learning is, in some way, wasted. To be sure, I do plenty of other things; but like Casaubon, too much time away from my books will make me anxious that a certain opportunity for learning has been irretrievably lost. I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. Perhaps it is time to discard Pliny as our heroic model, and take another look at life.

3 thoughts on “Reader Madness

  1. St Augustine had the advantage of preaching much of his corpus, and he would almost certainly have had amanuenses. Most authors of modern times do not. Even Mohammed had his remembrancers and scribes. The output of Calvin is Herculean, Brobdingnagian, colossal – as is Luther’s. The recent English translation of Luther’s Works comes to about 60 volumes, I believe.

    The ancient author I wonder about is Pliny the Elder – 37 books of Natural History sounds like a lot. Though Livy did manage to write 42 books out of an intended 50. I’m delighted so much of him has survived, but I wish all 42 had 🙁☹️😥😓😰 Some more Cicero would have been good, too. Caesar and Labienus and Cotta bashing up the Belgae with arrows and spears, I can do without.

  2. “Even after Herculean lexical labor, when they had turned their minds into immense storehouses of erudition, even the most brilliant and well-read scholars died. Some few scraps remain from the treasury, if we care to read them; but the well furnished minds themselves have become just as barren and empty as if they had never read a book, or had never been born.”

    Quite recently, after 90 years of work, the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary was completed. It is a magnificent achievement, and not only because it is 26 volumes long. It will last because it fulfils a need – the need for students of Assyriology, of all degrees of attainment, to understand the meanings of the words they work with, and to know in what contexts, periods, and senses those words are used. In no sense is it a waste of time or effort.

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