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.

Michael Dirda reviews Jayne Anne Phillips Lark and Termite in the current New York Review of Books (April 30, 2009). His exceptional analysis of this dreamy, multi-narrated novel unravels the complexity that IMO makes the story less accessible to all readers.

Anyone who’s already read the novel or who plans to read it will find Dirda’s review providing helpful revelations about Phillips’ recurrent themes, the novel’s structure and what Dirda describes as Phillips’ “meaningful meandering.”

It’s impressive when Dirda connects a remark by the character Leavitt – saying he used to perform the song “My Funny Valentine” – to Phillips’ mention later in the book that Chet Baker is playing on the jukebox. Dirda points out that Baker’s signature song was “My Funny Valentine.”

I heard Dirda read from his book Classics for Pleasure, and his mind is a steel trap for literary detail. His references to characters, scenes, plots, authors and more are astonishing for books read years in the past. Oh the envy.

BTW, Classics for Pleasure offers a great reading list written by “Dirda as passionate reader” rather than “Dirda as passionate critic.” His insights and summaries drove me to make a list that include Georgette Heyer’s Civil Contract and The Grand Sophy; W.H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland and his Selected Poems edited by Edward Mendelson; and Akhmatova’s early love poems. Even, as an adult, to reread The Secret Garden.

Dirda grew up in Lorain, Ohio. He is a writer and former senior editor for The Washington Post Book World. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism in 1993. His memoir about growing up in Lorain is An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland.

Here’s a fun glimpse inside An Open Book:

“Though my father had encouraged early reading by taking me to the library, he never wanted a bookworm in the family. Instead he envisioned a Super Son, adept with every known hand tool and eager to transform 1031 West 29th Street into an edifice that even Frank Lloyd Wright might envy or, alternately, a son so financially savvy that he would be hired at age eleven to manage J. Paul Getty’s investments. Having read a news story about Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in Borneo, he commanded me to write to the Rockefeller family and offer myself as a replacement son. He wasn’t kidding. Not a bit.”

Post updated 10.16.10 with improved book photos.

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