Friday, January 24, 2020

'The Full Gibbonian Roll'

I understand the intimidation posed by lengthy works of literature. People are busy. They have commitments. Between job and family, reserving time to read can be tough, and never have we been so tempted by so many distractions. I have no advice to offer. I know a man who recently finished reading the twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time. I know what certain books mean to me and have no regrets for the time I devoted to reading them. Proust will always be more important, a more loyal companion, than any television show I ever watched (and I watched a lot – McHale’s Navy? Outer Limits? – when I was a kid).

A reader wants to want to read Gibbon but is afraid of two things: 1.) Devoting a large amount of time to reading 2,000 pages of Roman history. 2.) Feeling defeated and ashamed if unable to read the entire book. About the latter I’m less than helpful: “That’s your problem, buddy.” About the former, I might suggest something I’ve never practiced myself. Formalize reading time. Be consistent. Set the alarm and read for an hour, replace the bookmark, put the book back on the shelf and do the same thing tomorrow. It may take a year, but who cares? Here is George Saintsbury, an Olympic-class reader (and writer), in A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912):

“Once more, one would not like all literature to be Gibbon; but one may be very well satisfied with that part of literature which is. . . . I have admired and enjoyed his style for at least half a century, and I have more than once or twice endeavoured to give critical account of it; but its secret, though perfectly easy to feel, is very difficult to describe precisely.”

I like a critic who admits defeat. That’s humble and human. When I return to a previously read book, it’s usually because of the style. Admittedly, that word covers a lot of ground. I mean more than word choice or filigree. The best books are suffused with their authors’ sensibilities. That’s style. Few people today read A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as their first text on Rome. Some of Gibbon’s conclusions have been usurped by later research and historical understanding. But I’m usually lured not by a book's hard information but by its style when I return to a writer, whether Sir Thomas Browne or Whitney Balliett. With Gibbon I’m attracted by what Saintsbury calls “the full Gibbonian roll—the flux and reflux of that majestic wave that kept time with the revolutions of more than a millennium.”

2 comments:

Cal Gough said...

Thanks for writing something about DECLINE AND FALL that will further nudge me toward undertaking my reading of it. Although I am probably going to read the abridged version (still a tome!) that I happen to have purchased a few years back: my own solution to the daunting prospect of reading Gibbon. I was also pleased to see you quoting Saintsbury on Gibbon in your blogpost: purely because of your many mentions of Saintsbury over the years, I have been reading this week in A SAINTSBURY MISCELLANY: SELECTIONS FROM HIS ESSAYS AND SCRAP BOOKS (1947) which no doubt you once mentioned specifically, and a copy of which I was able to track down at a nearby university library that allows me (as an alumni) to borrow its books. So, see? No need ever to wonder whether your enthusiasms about various authors you love (and who you so persuasively recommend in your blog) move your readers to Seek Out Those Authors! While I'm at it, let me thank you also (or, possibly, again) for the links in your blogroll: some of them have long since migrated to my own blog's blogroll, and I have been - thanks to you - the lucky reader of those blogs also for lo, now these many years.

Cal Gough

Faze said...

If you read an unabridged "History of the Decline and Fall" straight through to the reign of Constantine, you can consider that you've had a rich experience of Gibbon, and enjoy a sense of finality and completion. If you wish to continue (and you probably will), you may want to read and savor the rest in a more relaxed way, in between your other reading, over the rest of your life. Works for me.