When an angry radioactive turnip was elected president of the United States in the apocalyptic year that was 2016, I started to feel a little down. Naturally my response was to buy an unabridged copy of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. My get-out-of-bed-without-crying-plan is to read a little piece of this gargantuan lump of four hundred-year-old knowledge daily, and I will illustrate it as I go. I started www.masterofliterature.com to share my pictures and, I hope, coerce others into reading along with me. Whoops, of course I meant convince. It is so easy to confuse those two. Convince! That’s what I meant.
When someone asks you to read The Anatomy of Melancholy, you may find that you have many questions. Let me answer them here.
So, Devon, you want me to read the complete, unabridged Anatomy of Melancholy with you? How long is it?
Well, if you don’t include the notes, which are in Latin anyhow, it’s only 1,132 pages! It’s a real page turner too, I promise, such a quick read really. (Why the motherloving heck didn’t the publisher translate the Latin notes in my edition? Did they just assume that anyone buying the complete Anatomy of Melancholy would be some nutjob who speaks Latin in the 21st century? That was probably a safe assumption.) If you include the notes, it’s more like 1500 pages, but let’s just pretend I didn’t say that.
Okay… But what is it?
It is a seventeenth century medical treatise written by Robert Burton, an Oxford fellow and vicar, who more or less lived out his life in various libraries reading and writing this thing. Apparently, if he was feeling down, he also enjoyed hanging around Folly Bridge to listen to the boatmen shout obscenities at each other. The Anatomy of Melancholy is his chief work. The only other thing he wrote was a satirical play for a student production, Philosophaster. The Anatomy quickly went off the rails, and it more or less became just a massive… great work o’ literature. It is hard to sum up a 1200 page book in one sentence, but you could say it is about being a thinking, decent person cursed to live on a planet filled with idiot tyrannosauruses that have been destroying everything good for thousands of years. Know the feeling? You do. It sucks, hence the melancholy.
How long will this take?
Under a year, probably. [This is future Devon writing to past Devon, in the year 2019: A year was a preposterous estimate. More like twenty. This thing is DENSE. Also, you started trying to halfway decent art instead of brutally bad art. Good things take time.] [And now future-future Devon, from 2022: See Past Devon, this thing called Covid-19 happened… And two years of your life dissipated into… pandemic parenting, more or less summarized as chasing a small gremlin dressed as a skeleton around the house, often while brandishing a giant stuffed lobster, while hoping the larger gremlin is teaching herself to read somehow, and while also trying to remember who you used to be. And again, The A of M is just a super slow but wondrous read. You will probably be working through this obsession until you die.]
When I was in grad school I could read 500 pages a day, but only if I did literally nothing else all day except eat donuts and watch one episode of X-Files before bed. At that rate it would only take three days. However, given my current lifestyle in which I parent two small goblins, my speed has more realistically slowed to about three to four pages a day, which works out to about ten months to finish. My goal is to finish by the end of 2017. After that, I am planning to keep this bloggity blog going with a new book for the new year. I will just keep on soothing the big ol’ WTF in my brain until the loud potato growing a peculiar orange mold on the top of his head is out of office. Perhaps your brain is in need of this too.
Will 1,132 pages of writing on melancholy make me feel… melancholic?
If you aren’t already feeling melancholic then there is something wrong with you. Also, oh my goodness no! It is truly an uplifting book, though heavy to lift near one’s face while reading. And hey, my own two cents would be that melancholia is not a bad thing. To be thoughtful, awake, and alive – without living in complete denial of everything bad (chiefly death but also other seriously bad stuff like racism, genocide, and all the evils humans to do one another) – is to be melancholic. It is the best way to live, but it is not the easiest. As an important aside, it has been a bit trendy in the past couple of decades to say that melancholia is just an old-fashioned term for depression. Oh ho! Look at that! Depression existed in the seventeenth century! Gasp! I would argue that clinical depression is actually very different than what we are dealing with in The Anatomy of Melancholy. They certainly do overlap, but if you have a chemical malfunction in your brain (that is, at last, thankfully, somewhat manageable with modern medicine – hooray modern medicine!) that is a very different thing than viewing the profoundly bad State of the World with an appropriate moroseness that oscillates between fury and saddened bemusement.
Why are you doing this to yourself?
Well, when a vulgar, incoherent atomic tangerine was elected POTUS, I got sad. Seriously, despondently sad. So did all my friends, and that made me even sadder, which probably made them sadder, and so on. I think reading the Anatomy of Melancholy might make us all feel a little better, and it will definitely make us smarter.
But… but… how does reading a nearly four hundred year old book HELP ANYTHING AT ALL? Shouldn’t you be marching, calling your congressperson, etc.?
Please stop yelling, and yes, I should be and I am. But I really believe that the less tangible thing that we have to work on is the very angry tidal wave of anti-intellectualism that has finally and really catastrophically crashed down hard on the United States of America. So I guess I am trying to help with that in my own small and weird way. We all need to read and think more, much more. On top of all the immediate, material stuff that is in front of us, like calling our representatives about the ACA and the EPA and All That, we also need to enact a cultural shift that makes deep reflection and critical thinking cool again. Be smart, be thoughtful, be well read and informed, and don’t be a smug jerk about it either.
I still don’t want to read that book.
Darn. Well, if you don’t believe me, listen to the critics! According to Boswell, Samuel Johnson once said that The Anatomy of Melancholy was “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” Golly gee whittakers! Byron once wrote that reading The Anatomy of Melancholy was the best way “to acquire a reputation of being well read, with the least trouble.” See?! Only 1,132 pages and you’re officially “well read!” (Yes, I know these quotes are both around 200 years old. If you can find someone who read this thing more recently, please do let me know.) Romantic poets like Byron had an abundance of free time to read 1,132 page-long books because they weren’t always Snapchatting their friends on Facebook or whatever it is you people do nowadays. Also they mostly did not have jobs, but whatevs. Read. Consider it a daily workout for your brain. Or follow along for the pictures, please? After you call your congressperson, of course. Whatever it is that I am doing here will make you feel better about things, I promise, because it will be mostly silly pictures.
I suspect it’s unlikely that I have convinced anyone, but if I have, I am reading the 2001 New York Review of Books Edition and will be using their numeration and effing Latin endnotes. Does Google Translate do Latin? [Future Devon here again: Google translate does do Latin, hiliariously badly.]
If you prefer less matter to haul around, you can read The Anatomy online via Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10800.
The readalong is now underway, but if you are joining us now, begin at the beginning. Or check out the story so far.