The complete review's Review:
If one had to pare down one's library to the barest minimum, Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy is a volume that one could never cull. If one had to prepare for a desert-island exile and could take only a handful of books along, then The Anatomy of Melancholy is surely a volume one would insist on taking. Those that have a copy of the long hard-to-find volume(s) treasure and cling to it -- one reason why you'll rarely find a copy at your local second-hand bookstore.
It is a famous book. A well-known title. But rarely seen. It has been, essentially, out of print for some time (the recent scholarly Clarendon Press edition being out of most reader's price range -- and, apparently, already itself out of print). Now The Anatomy of Melancholy has been republished in a convenient single volume by New York Review Books. A barely ballyhooed event, it should be the talk of the town, the publishing triumph of the season.
There are few essentials that belong on the bookshelf in every cultured English-speaking household. A collected Shakespeare. The Riverside Chaucer. Grudgingly: a King James Bible. And Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.
Burton's book is encyclopedic. Burdened all his life with a "roving humour", Burton acknowledges:
I have read many books, but to little purpose, for want of good method. I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries with small profit for want of art, order, memory, judgment. I never travelled but in map or card, in which my unconfined thoughts have freely expatiated.
There is both madness and method here. The book is overwhelming. It ranges across nearly all subjects: medicine, astronomy, philosophy, literature and all the arts, politics, nature. It runs from quote to quote to reference. Still, it is carefully constructed, partition upon section upon member upon subsection. Neat synoptical tables illustrate how each partition unfolds. All possible issues are brought up and dealt with, exhaustively -- but never exhaustingly. The style is an odd one, with run-on sentences that seem to want to break off every which way, but Burton's hand is a firm one and, amazingly, he keeps things under control.
The book is presented as being by "Democritus Junior", the pseudonym Burton chose to publish the book under; it is dedicated to George Berkeley (giving some sense of Burton's own philosophical inclinations). The book begins with a Latin poem "Democritus Junior to his Book", with which he releases it into the open day. An explanatory poem gives "The Argument of the Frontispiece" (see here or, if you have the patience, here for reproductions of the frontispiece) Next: "The Author's Abstract of Melancholy".
There is then a long introduction, "Democritus Junior to the Reader", and finally a warning "To the Reader who Employs his Leisure Ill". Then it is on with the melancholy show. The focus is on this perceived malady, but in essence it is also an excuse to discourse about all matters and manners in the world (and, occasionally, beyond).
The first partition is devoted to the more common, generic sort of melancholy, focussing on causes and symptoms. Melancholy can, apparently, be found everywhere. Burton explores every possible reason for that sinking melancholy feeling. From God to bad nurses, bad diet to overmuch study, "Self-love, Vainglory, Praise, Honour, Immoderate Applause" to covetousness, "An heap of other Accidents" to education ("if a man escape a bad nurse he may be undone by evil bringing up") -- it seems anything can cause it.
The symptoms are more straightforward, though also more varied than one might expect. From "Windy Hypochondriacal Melancholy" to the female variations -- "Maids', Nuns', and Widows' Melancholy" -- Burton gives a neat little overview.
The second partition suggests cures for melancholy, ranging from lifestyle-changes to medical solutions (from blood-letting to herbal alternatives). Burton himself suggested: "I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy." (And he was very busy at it.)
The last partition then is devoted to the most complex and irrational mind-ailments: love-melancholy and religious-melancholy.
The fun and the brilliance of the book lies in Burton's presentation. Melancholy is his springboard, but it is the entire human experience -- so melancholy-tinged -- that is his subject. Example after example is heaped on the reader, quote after quote after story after anecdote, all condensed to their very essence. A mad fill, an overabundance, literary profusion on the most extravagant scale.
On every page there are a dozen -- at least -- examples or citations or tales or ideas, each of which any author could spin out into a full-length novel or treatise. Indeed, The Anatomy of Melancholy is the ultimate writer's resource book. Many a career could be built on it -- and several have been.
Laurence Sterne carried on the Burtonian tradition, stealing extensively from The Anatomy of Melancholy for his own Tristram Shandy (a theft that was not discovered for decades, as Burton was barely remembered or read at the time). For many others the volume was also favoured reading (and, occasionally, cribbing) material, from John Keats to Samuel Beckett.
The Anatomy of Melancholy is almost unreadable. Densely packed, it defies reading as it is now generally practised. And yet it is the ultimate book, a volume that one can not but return to over and over, constantly. Perusal of the rich Anatomy is addictive, each passage like a snort of crystallized literary erudition -- with a healthy dose of humour.
It is a book that lasts a lifetime. It is bottomless: both a pit and a reprieve. Burton himself, in his lifelong melancholy fit, could not help but constantly add to the text. The first edition had some 350,000 words, the sixth over half a million. He was a man possessed, the text burgeoning to bursting, Burton always -- just -- in control.
It is a unique, and grand achievement. Modern efforts at so-called hypertexts and hyperfiction pale beside it. On only the printed page Burton goes far beyond what most have conceived in virtual worlds.
If you only buy one book this year, let it be this one. And if you buy hundreds of books this year, let this one be on the top of the list.