November 16, 2009
The New York Review of Books Classics is celebrating 10 years of publishing. During that decade, one of its best sellers has been The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. Every time I read or hear about this 17th century tome, there’s exceptional praise. But I can’t imagine heading in for the read. Not only is this compendium of melancholia’s many dispositions composed of dense prose, it’s written in 17th Century style, using the likes of “doth” and “hath.”
Last year, I urged my friend BE, a voracious reader, to read it for my vicarious enjoyment. He has yet to reach the last page. I’m not sure he’s even passed page 200. What is it about The Anatomy of Melancholy that sets it apart? viaLibri prices earlier copies ranging from $40 to $272 (as of this date). Echo Library, a print-on-demand publisher, offers it in two volumes. (The NYRB Classics version comes in one volume.) Michael Dirda writes in Classics for Pleasure, “…surrender to its seemingly wayward rhythms and you will understand why Samuel Johnson used to say that it was ‘the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.’” Dirda also writes, “The Anatomy of Melancholy is not, in fact, a volume to read through so much as to live with.” I might add for a long time, considering it’s 1,392 pages.