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There are many reasons to read Robert Burton’s book The Anatomy of Melancholy. One reason is to experience the 17th century diagnostic mind, which gives medical information that we in the post-enlightenment, scientific twenty-first century find arcane and humorous. Take this for example: Burton discusses lycanthropy, the disease of the brain by which men are convinced they are wolves. “This malady, says Avicenna, troubleth most men in February.”

A second reason to read the Anatomy is to laugh at Burton’s fanatic citations. In some of parts of the book, I can barely finish a sentence as it is so tangled with references to classical thinkers, philosophers, artists, historians with snippets of Greek and Latin which are sometimes translated and sometimes left to my own powers of deduction. Here’s an example: “In eo pleraque perniciosa, saith the same Fabius, many childish tracts and sentences he hath, sermo illaboratus, too negligent often and remiss, as A. Gellius observes, oratio vulgaris et protrita, dicaces etc ineptae sententiae, erudition plebia…

Thirdly, read Burton for his (English) language. “For, from the fall of our first parent Adam, they have been changed, the earth accursed, the influence of stars altered, the four elements, beasts, birds, plants, are ready to offend us.” This sentence resounds with meaning. You are making your way through a dimly lit room and suddenly the window is illuminated; we are struck by the effect 17th century theology has on the psyche: as a result of original sin, the world is “ready to offend us.” Burton’s world (and even universe) is a mapped one, but still vast and threatening. Yet he recommends travel as an antidote to the melancholy he wrestled against.

When I was in Oxford a few years ago I bought James Atlee’s Isolarion. I hoped this book, which was about Oxford, would be what I wanted to read about: secret gardens, botanical marvels, life on the river, and the history of the buildings, streets, colleges and graveyards. Instead, to my gradual disappointment, his book was about East Oxford: the Cowley road, the immigrants and shops and international eateries and hostels from which manuscripts were stolen. I tried to be open-minded but was just not interested; much like the way I once preferred Edith Wharton to Dickens, because Dickens was grimier and homelier and peopled with characters who spoke in dialect.

A few weeks ago, I remembered that Atlee’s companion on the road, in his pilgrimage around his hometown, was the melancholy ecclesiastic/librarian, Robert Burton, who lived and wrote his book in Oxford. So I hauled out Isolarion again and this time I am thankful to Atlee for enlarging the city and giving voice to its residents, and apologetic for my earlier ignorance. I’m grateful for his sideways introduction to Burton.

This book, The Anatomy of Melancholy, is the biggest book on my shelf. I know I’ll be reading it for quite some time.


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