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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 98 – The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)

Jan 2nd, 2018 by

This compelling and occasionally comic study of melancholy became cult reading in the 17th century and has inspired artists from Keats to Cy Twombly

From the eccentric compulsion of its full title onwards (The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Partitions with their severall Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up), Burton’s masterpiece is garrulous, repetitive and often exasperating, but strangely addictive. I imagine that some readers of Karl Ove Knausgaard will understand the fascination of this book.

Ostensibly a medical study of melancholia, a subject first captured in a celebrated engraving by Dürer in 1514, it becomes a sublime literary doorstop (some 1,400 pages in my paperback edition) that exploits every facet of its subject, to explore humanity in all its paradoxical complexity, drawing from the science of the age and mixing it with astrology, meteorology, psychology, theology and rich, old-fashioned kidology. Teasingly, Burton describes himself as “a loose, plain, rude writer… I call a spade a spade”. He may say “all poets are mad”, but he is neither plain nor rude. Parts of The Anatomy are outstandingly comic: no surprise that Laurence Sterne should send up Burton in Tristram Shandy. Indeed, Burton’s voice is never less than inimitable: “I might indeed (had I wisely done) observed that precept of the poet [blank] – nonumque prematur in annum – and have taken more care: or, as Alexander the physician would have done by lapis lazuli, fifty times washed before it be used, I should have revised, corrected and amended this tract, but I had not (as I said) that happy leisure, no amanuenses or assistants.”

It’s really a benign satire on the fallibility of the human mind. He finds “melancholy” ingrained in the human condition

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