“His time was mainly spent in reading.”
Already I’m sympathetic. I can’t work up much affection for the kid who spends his day throwing a baseball against the side of the barn, considering I was the kid sitting sensibly in the shade, on the porch, reading. Not that my taste was impeccable. I’ve just remembered reading a volume I came to by way of Walt Whitman, Cosmic Consciousness (1901) by Richard Maurice Bucke. This coincides with my mystical period at age fourteen, which lasted about three days. On a summer day, I remember trying to experience happiness while reading Bucke’s book, subtitled A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. It’s best to get such things out of your system early, like mumps.
I’ve just learned that Edward Gibbon spent roughly £3,000 on books between January 1785 and June 1788, an amount exceeding $214,000 today. My admiration is tinged with envy, of course. The author of the passages quoted at the top and the one below is Augustine Birrell in Res Judicatae: Papers and Essays (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892):
“Lord Sheffield's guests always knew that they would find Mr. Gibbon in the library, and meet him at the dinner-table. He abhorred a horse. His one vocation, and his only avocation, was reading, not lazy glancing and skipping, but downright savage reading—geography, chronology, and all the tougher sides of history. What glorious, what martial times, indeed, must those have been that made Mr. Gibbon leap into the saddle, desert his books, and for two mortal years and a half live in camps!”
Born in 1737, Gibbon served in the Hampshire militia from 1760 to 1762. In his essay on Gibbon, Walter Bagehot says the historian as a student had “uncommon difficulties and unusual difficulties,” though “these were much more than counterbalanced by a habit which often accompanies a sickly childhood, and is the commencement of a studious life, the habit of desultory reading.” I take that to mean unsystematic reading – serendipitous, without plan, plotted only by instinct. Just thinking of Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan gives me the willies. In his Memoirs, Gibbon confirms Bagehot’s observation:
“Pain and languor were often soothed by the voice of instruction and amusement; and to her kind lessons I ascribe my early and invincible love of reading, which I would not exchange for the treasures of India.”
And one page later: “Where a title attracted my eye, without fear or awe, I snatched the volume from the shelf.”
Late in his lecture, Birrell manages to condescend to Gibbon and make an unseemly joke: “Male ugliness is an endearing quality, and in a man of great talents it assists his reputation. It mollifies our inferiority to be able to add to our honest admiration of anyone's great intellectual merit, `But did you ever see such a chin!’”
And this: “Gibbon was neither a great thinker nor a great man. He had neither light nor warmth.” He was merely a great writer -- and reader, a not unrelated accomplishment.