The Long Read: The Anatomy of Melancholy

I’m inaugurating a new reading project for It will be independent of Reading 2008 and subsequent related projects. It’s called The Long Read. There are a number of books in my stack that I’ve wanted to read for years, but have put off because they are daunting either intellectually or by virtue of their extreme length (or both). There aren’t many of these books, but they could take months or perhaps even a full year to read and therefore don’t fit well into my Reading 2008 project, nor my policy of reading only one book at a time. I’m talking about books like The Anatomy of Melancholy or In Search of Lost Time. What I propose is this: alongside my regular reading, I will read one of these long, daunting books. Rather than posting a single review after reading the book, I will post periodic reports, including interesting quotations and my thoughts on the process of trying to engage with such heavy reading material and how, or even if, the extended duration of that engagement might affect my thoughts and feelings about the material. If that sounded convoluted, I suppose you might just say that I’ll be blogging about a big, difficult book alongside my regular reading list.

The first book I’ve chosen for The Long Read is Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. I’ve been interested in this book since taking a class in 1999 with Canadian author Eric McCormack (The Dutch Wife, First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, The Mysterium, etc), in which he spoke extensively about writing his thesis on The Anatomy. I picked up the NYRB edition in 2001, and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since, glanced at but never opened seriously. With one or two exceptions, I’ve never been a fan of pre-Victorian prose, so I don’t anticipate a smooth ride with Mr. Burton. I’m hoping that my natural affinity for the topic will sustain me. These lines from William H. Gass’ introduction give me some hope:

The analytical outline should not daunt. Burton pays as much attention to his own schematisms as he pays to the syntax of his sentences. Imposing indeed are his interconnections, but it is rather as if a net had been flung down on top of fish who continue to roil and flop freely about beneath it.

So here’s hoping this works out. I don’t think I’ve ever been so intimidated by a book in all my life.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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