It’s probably best to read certain lengthy books when one is young, healthy and still eager to prove one’s self. I’ve been blessed with a gift for concentrating and filtering out most distractions, perhaps because I worked for years in newsrooms which can get as noisy as machine shops. Proust I read the first time at nineteen, over a long summer, and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon a few summers later, followed by Anthony Powell’s twelve-novel cycle.
The calibration gets tricky. Young and energetic doesn’t always mean receptive, understanding and mature. We miss a lot when we’re young and make a lot of false assumptions. Our knowledge of life and its losses is minimal. That’s part of the reason I reread Proust a decade later. I had retained little and probably understood less. I struck a balance with Gibbon. I read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 2000, the year I turned forty-eight. I spent months with his book, setting a daily quota of pages, making notes, consulting other books for context and clarification. Everyone is first seduced by Gibbon’s stately, balanced, sometimes aphoristic prose. When he won’t let go of it, his anti-Christianity becomes tiresome. V.S. Pritchett says of him: “Gibbon has a taste for the truth that is melancholy, for seeing life as a series of epitaphs.” His wisdom is not old but middle-aged. Gibbon writes in Memoirs of My Life and Writing, posthumously published in 1796:
“I am endowed with a cheerful temper, a moderate sensibility, and a natural disposition to repose rather than to activity: some mischievous appetites and habits have perhaps been corrected by philosophy or time. The love of study, a passion which derives fresh vigour from enjoyment, supplies each day, each hour, with a perpetual source of independent and rational pleasure; and I am not sensible of any decay of the mental faculties. The original soil has been highly improved by cultivation; but it may be questioned, whether some flowers of fancy, some grateful errors, have not been eradicated with the weeds of prejudice.”
Gibbon died on this date, January 16, in 1794 at age fifty-six.