The Anatomy of Melancholy

Robert Burton

“The book to end all books.”


This is one of those books that previous adored-books referenced so many times that I finally had enough, left with no choice but to investigate. I had no clue it would be 1,400 pages.

BUT, with a review like this from The Guardian, I soldiered on, bought the book, and still dip into it sporadically. It’s like a great big ocean of human experience that one can jump into from any angle, in any random location, and enjoy the waters.

“It's not a novel, a tract, an epic poem, a history; it is, quite self-consciously, the book to end all books. Made out of all the books that existed in a 17th-century library, it was compiled in order to explain and account for all human emotion and thought. It is not restricted to melancholy, or, as we call it today, depression; but then a true study of it will have to be - if you have the learning and the stamina - about everything.”

Burton essentially spent his life in a 17th-century library, all of it (his life and the library), and finally got to a point where he actually felt the sheer accumulation of knowledge in his head was bothersome, festering in a kind of abscess that he needed to rid himself of, and so this book is one great big brain-dump of a man who read all there was to read in one of the greatest library’s of the 17th century:

“I first took this task in hand…to ease my mind by writing; for I had a kind of imposthume [abscess] in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of, and could imagine no fitter evacuation than this.”

His wit & humor first struck me, making all the rest immeasurably more appetizing. I’ve still only read a fraction of it, but even the occasional paragraph taken here or there is delightful, and brimming with erudition.