Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy

My great books #1: The Anatomy of Melancholy

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The Anatomy of Melancholy

Note: Two years ago, I posted a list of ten works of fiction that had shaped me as a writer. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be doing the same with nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. I hope you’ll find something here that will change your life, too.

The Anatomy of Melancholy is a medical textbook that both causes and cures the disease that it claims to describe. This is such a Borgesian idea that it’s mildly surprising that Borges himself—who was a fan—never did anything with it, but it’s less of a paradox than it seems. The scholar Robert Burton’s professed aim was to analyze the condition known in the seventeenth century as melancholia, which was both less and more than what a modern writer might call clinical depression. One of its causes, as he knew well, was “overmuch study,” with too much time spent among books and not among human beings. And it’s no accident that his own treatise is the ultimate example of a work so fascinating and exhaustive that it’s tempting to devote the rest of your life to it, just as Burton himself did, despite the psychological dangers that it presents. Of his fellow scholars and students, Burton writes:

They are most part lean, dry, ill-colored, spend their fortunes, lose their wits, and many times their lives, and all through immoderate pains and extraordinary studies…Because they cannot ride a horse, which every clown can do; salute and court a gentlewoman, carve at table, cringe and make congees, which any common swasher can do, his populus ridet, etc., they are laughed to scorn, and accounted silly fools by our gallants. Yea, many times, such is their misery; they deserve it: a mere scholar, a mere ass.

There’s no question that Burton is talking about himself here, as well as about his own readers, who wouldn’t be drawn to his book at all if they weren’t prone to the same affliction. Yet he also writes, with no sense of contradiction: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” The same books and libraries that can cause much isolation and sadness are also the occasion for one of the most weirdly entertaining works in the English language. Melancholy itself is only its excuse: its real subject is the world itself and everything in it, and it uses melancholy as a lens through which to examine whatever Burton happens to find interesting. It’s our greatest book of digressions, with lengthy excursuses on such topics as the existence of werewolves, the possibility of life on other planets, and the sexual practices of the famous and obscure, the latter of which Burton couches discreetly in Latin. It was his life’s work, and he revised it repeatedly, adding more citations, quotations, and examples to the structure he had already established. And the paradox it embodies is that of the creative life itself: books and writing can make us miserable, but they’re also the only thing that can revive us again. I discovered The Anatomy of Melancholy in high school, and it’s startling to realize how perfectly it anticipated the shape my own life has taken. And Burton’s closing advice to his readers is as sound now as it ever was, as hard as it can be for a writer to put it into practice: “Be not solitary, be not idle.”

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2015 at 9:54 am

The birds and the books

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The Anatomy of Melancholy

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What have you bought based on its cover alone?”

In evolutionary biology, there’s a concept called the good genes hypothesis—closely related to the delightfully named “sexy son hypothesis”—that states that such seemingly useless traits as elaborate plumage in birds can indicate real genetic advantages to potential mates. It’s hard to keep a bright, bulky set of tail feathers intact, and since it makes it harder to flee and increases visibility, it even puts its owner at increased risk of being eaten. A male that is capable of surviving with an inconvenient tail presumably has correspondingly good instincts or stamina, and it’s those qualities, rather than the tail itself, that make him attractive to females. Plumage or other aspects of a bird’s appearance can also be a sign of overall health. Parasites, for instance, can reduce the sheen of ultraviolet feathers in such species as the satin bowerbird, and comb size in roosters is a decent proxy for levels of testosterone, which affects health in other ways. And the size of the comb can be reduced by such issues as intestinal worms. In other words, there appears to be a strong evolutionary rationale on the species level for developing some sort of quickly processed signal, even if it seems otherwise pointless, that allows females to distinguish between prospects at a glance.

You could say much the same about art. It’s impossible to accurately and rapidly judge a book or movie in its entirety, so audiences develop heuristic shortcuts to make decisions about what to consume, and many of these cues are all but unconscious. Sound design, for example, is an exceptionally useful way to distinguish between films, but only in a negative sense. Many excellent movies have made a point of violating the usual standards of conventional cinematography, with grainy film stock, digital video, or shaky camerawork, but few have ever made an aesthetic virtue out of muddy sound. When we see a clip from a movie with awful sound design, we know at once that it’s likely to be amateurish in other important respects. (Of course, this is only really useful when it comes to independent productions: most studio films have advanced to the point where such technical departments as sound and lighting are always of high quality, even if other aspects suffer.) If I were an independent filmmaker, no matter how small my budget, I’d spend whatever it took in order to get an experienced sound team, as well as a good editor, and I’d prioritize it well above the cameras. We’re likely to give a low-budget movie with sloppy cinematography the benefit of the doubt, but we’ll turn off a movie with bad sound within a few seconds.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Similar factors apply to our choices of what books to read. As with movies, such aspects as cover design, typography, and paper quality are most effective as negative indicators: if the publisher clearly hasn’t taken much of an interest in a book’s tactile and visual qualities—either out of indifference or because of a lack of resources—it isn’t likely to have lavished much care on the contents, either. (Whenever I open a novel to see a ragged right margin and a sans-serif font, I close it at once. It may not be fair, but I don’t want to spend hours staring at that kind of page.) The fact that a book is handsomely packaged doesn’t mean that it’s any good, but it at least indicates the publisher’s confidence in the material. Such rules of thumb don’t always work: The Goldfinch is about as gorgeously mounted an example of the bookseller’s art as you’ll find, but I found it underwhelming as a novel. But I don’t think it’s an accident that the books I love are almost always a pleasure to handle as well as to read. This doesn’t mean that they have to be gilt-edged and hand-tooled, and in fact, handsome leather editions of the classics often strike me as in bad taste. But I’ll always have a weakness for a cleanly designed, attractively typeset paperback with a little heft to its pages.

In short, I’ve spent much of my reading life operating under the assumption that a book that shows obvious care in small details of design and presentation will devote a similar degree of attention to its words and ideas, at least on the editor’s side. And I’m not often steered wrong. Looking around my home office, I see countless titles to which I was drawn mostly because of how they struck my eye. It’s likely that I was first attracted to the Burton Club edition of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night because of how nice it looked lined up on the shelves of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and I’ve discovered many books that ended up being hugely important in my life, like The Anatomy of Melancholy, because they stood out in a used bookstore. And it’s fair to say that my own prejudices and tastes have been shaped by a lifetime of browsing in particular kinds of bookshops, in which the most interesting titles often dated from an era before digital typesetting and the widespread use of sans fonts. Someone who browses for books online, as I increasingly do, will develop a different set of heuristics, and if I recently became obsessed with the titles published by the Bollingen Library, it’s because they invariably come close to my ideal of how a book should look. And now that every new book’s contents are nothing but metadata, browsing itself is going out of style. But it never hurts to check out the plumage.

Written by nevalalee

October 9, 2015 at 8:38 am

My Lady Caffeine

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Buzz Cafe in Oak Park, Illinois

I love coffee. Over the past decade or two, I’ve alternated between seeing it as an occasional treat and regarding it as essential to survival, and at the moment, I’d rank it among one of life’s basic necessities. I’m drinking a cup of it right now, seated a few feet away from the proximate cause of my recent decision to fully embrace caffeine. Every morning, usually between five and six, I’m awakened by a series of coos and squeals from the next room, signaling that my daughter—now five months old—has decided to start her day. If it’s the weekend, I pick her up, change her, and bring her downstairs to the kitchen, which, like the rest of the house, is silent and peaceful in the predawn light coming through the windows facing the yard. After I set her down in her little chair, the first thing I do is boil a kettle of water. Green tea, which for a long time was my beverage of choice, just won’t do. I need something stronger, preferably with cream and sugar, as I set up my laptop on the dining room table and start to contemplate the morning’s work. With my first cup in hand, my head clears and I start to write. And I’m happy.

It’s possible that much of what we think of as modern civilization we owe to coffee, which arrived on the European scene just when it was needed the most. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, gives us nice a sense of the mystique of coffee at the beginning of the seventeenth century:

The Turks have a drink called coffa (for they use no wine) so named of a berry as black as soot, and as bitter…which they sip still of, and sup as warm as they can suffer; they spend so much time in those coffa-houses, which are somewhat like our ale-houses or taverns; and there they sit chatting and drinking to drive away the time, and to be merry together, because they find by experience that kind of drink so used helpeth digestion, and procureth alacrity.

This description, which Burton based on the travel notes of the poet Sir George Sandys, remains as true as ever: the primary reason we drink coffee is still to “procure alacrity.” The introduction of coffee into European society created a third place, a social gathering point for ideas to be traded, and it kept us sober during the day for long enough to transact business. Later, it provided necessary fuel for the Industrial Revolution: as Mark Pendergrast observes in his book Uncommon Grounds, early factory workers quickly learned to subsist on coffee and bread, which only shows us how little has changed over the ensuing three centuries.

The author's desk

And it’s possible that coffee also affected the creativity of the culture in more profound ways. J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, wrote a curious little book called My Lady Nicotine, in which he notes that the flowering of culture in the age of Shakespeare coincided with the introduction of tobacco:

The Elizabethan age might be better named the beginning of the smoking era. No unprejudiced person who has given thought to the subject can question the propriety of dividing our history into two periods—the pre-smoking and the smoking…I know, I feel, that with the introduction of tobacco England woke up from a long sleep. Suddenly a new zest had been given to life. The glory of existence became a thing to speak of. Men who had hitherto only concerned themselves with the narrow things of home put a pipe into their mouths and became philosophers.

You could say much the same thing about coffee, which turned people into what the pharmacologist Louis Lewin, quoted by Pendergrast, calls “coffee house politicians who drink cup after cup…and by this abuse are inspired to profound wisdom.” Lewin calls the symptoms of caffeine usage “a remarkable loquaciousness sometimes accompanied by accelerated association of ideas,” which sounds about right to me. (It’s also true that the effects of caffeine in such settings are hard to separate from those of nicotine. Pendergrast quotes a contemporary observer of the London coffeehouse: “The whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge.”)

And writers and artists of all kinds—who quickly turned coffee into an essential component of the bohemian life—have long been aware of how deeply coffee affects us, both creatively and in smaller, more human ways. As one of them writes:

Everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop…Forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

Another notes:

I think the answer is we all need a little help, and the coffee’s a little help with everything—social, energy, don’t know what to do next, don’t know how to start my day, don’t know how to get through this afternoon, don’t know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we’re not in great shape. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We’re a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.

The former quote is from Balzac; the latter, from Jerry Seinfeld. And it’s my lady caffeine who joins them—and all of us—together, as we enjoy one of the most profound pleasures that life has to offer.

The pleasures of underlining

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The author's copy of Proust

There are some readers who would never dream of marking up a book’s pristine pages, but I’m an inveterate underliner. In some ways, I don’t think I’ve really read a book until I’ve had a chance to go through it with a pen. Back in high school and college, I tended to underline books in their entirety, and when I look back at my old copies of Dante or The Anatomy of Melancholy, it can be hard to find an unmarked sentence. This might seem to defeat the practical purpose of highlighting selected passages, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of later reference: it was my way of blazing a trail, of reminding myself how far I’d gone into Dante’s dark forest. Underlining a phrase leaves a distinct, permanent signpost for my future self long after the details of the book have faded. These days, my memory for what I’ve read is spotty at best, but when I open a book and see a passage I’ve marked, I know for sure that I’ve been there.

But I’m a little more selective about what I underline now than I was a decade ago. With nonfiction, I tend to focus on striking facts or insights, especially if I think they might be helpful later, either because I might put them in a story or because they offer useful perspectives or advice. (Many of the Quotes of the Day on this blog were originally found this way.) When I’m doing research for a novel, underlining serves a clear purpose: I’ll usually read through the book once, marking whatever catches my eye, then go back over it again to transfer the major points onto notecards. I’ve found that it saves time to indicate important passages with a thin pen or pencil line in the margin, much as readers of an earlier era scored the page with their thumbnails, which allows me to quickly flip through the book to find what I’ve marked. And a passage that seemed only mildly interesting at the time can later turn out to have enormous resonance. When I’m trying to figure out the plot of a novel, I always go through my old notecards to see if there’s anything I can salvage, and something I wrote down in passing will often have an important role to play years later.

The author's copy of Walden

With fiction, the process is a little harder to pin down. The real test is whether I think an underlined passage will give me pleasure when I come back to it in the future, and I’ll often hesitate for a second before committing myself. It might seem like I’m overthinking it, but I’ve found that looking back through a book I’ve selectively underlined is one of my great joys as a reader. When I revisit my marked copies of Proust or Thoreau, with my eye skipping from one passage to the next, I hit all the high points at once, and whenever I’m reading this way, I never want to do anything else. Just opening The Magic Mountain at random, for instance, I find this:

On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.

Even more interesting is when I come across a passage that I don’t remember, and which at first glance doesn’t seem to hold much of interest. If I look more closely, however, I’ll often find that it struck me for reasons that have since lost their urgency, leaving a fossil or snapshot of my emotional life at the time. The result is the closest thing I have to an intellectual autobiography. When I underline a book, it becomes a part of me.

As a result, most of the books I’ve bought in the last ten years are full of highlighted passages, as well as notes on the endpapers, where I’ll often jot ideas or observations if I don’t have a notebook handy. (Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even been known to lightly underline library books, although only in pencil, and I always go back to erase my work once I’m done.) And it isn’t nearly the same in a Kindle, although it can be interesting to see what other readers have marked. Underlining a physical book brings the hand and the mind into a sort of temporary harmony, and I often feel, rightly or not, that I’m reading more deeply or attentively when I’m holding a pen. Just as I think it’s important to use pen and paper whenever possible while writing, I take pains to keep reading a tactile experience: marking it by hand turns a book from one of thousands of identical objects into something that belongs to me alone, and in the end, it comes to feel like a living being, or a friend.

Written by nevalalee

May 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

The end of browsing

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A while back, I wrote a post about intentional randomness as a creative tool, explaining how I sometimes use Shakespeare and the I Ching to generate ideas. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that I’ve neglected to discuss the single most useful source of creative randomness, and the one that has given me the most pleasure over the years: other books. In particular, the neglected books, often obscure or out of print, that you discover by accident, when looking for something else or nothing at all—which is when your mind is most receptive to unexpected influences. And the only place where such discoveries can really take place is a great used bookstore.

Jorge Luis Borges famously said that heaven, for him, was a sort of library. For me, it’s more like the perfect used bookstore: musty, crowded, cheap, and only vaguely organized. Libraries are great, but their very rationality, which is otherwise such a miracle, greatly reduces the chances of a spontaneous discovery—although I’ve recently taken to roaming the shelves of the Sulzer Regional branch here in Lincoln Square, hoping that I’ll stumble across something unexpected. To find something really special, though, you need something like the massive dollar bin at the Strand in New York, or the late lamented basement of The Ark in Chicago: a chaotic jumble, a mildewed treasure hoard, a browser’s paradise.

And the discoveries you make are unforgettable. I still remember the moment, something like fourteen years ago, when I first saw The Anatomy of Melancholy at Shakespeare & Co. in Berkeley. More recently, I found The Road to Xanadu at Bookman’s Corner here in Chicago—a wonderful bookstore that looks like the remains of another, larger bookstore that exploded. The Portable Dragon all but leapt off the shelf two months ago at Pegasus Books. Even a chain like Borders has its occasional surprises: my copy of David Mamet’s On Directing Film, which faithful readers will know I treat almost as a religious text, was picked up for something like five dollars in the Borders bargain bin.

But even Borders, alas, is closing most of its Chicago stores. And as Noel Murray recently pointed out on the AV Club, the death of such big box stores, on top of the independent bookstores they replaced, threatens to mark the end of browsing, which had already been dealt a mortal blow by the coming of Every book imaginable is available online, at least for a price, which would have dazzled my younger self, who looked eagerly forward to his monthly trip to Waldenbooks—but it also threatens to eliminate the happy accidents for which I still spend hours at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest and Newberry Library Book Fair. In the old days, you had no choice but to browse; now it’s something you need to make time for. And you should. Because you never know when you’re going to find the book that will change your life.

Research as a way of dreaming

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As I argued yesterday, researching a novel, at least at its earliest stages, isn’t primarily about factual accuracy, but about dreaming. While it’s certainly important for an author to get his or her facts straight—if only because there’s nothing like an obvious error to yank the reader out of the story—such fact-checking can usually wait until later in the process, sometimes even after the bulk of the novel is finished. The first round of research, by contrast, is less about verifying facts than about gathering material for the imagination, which runs best when kept fed and happy. Here, then, are some tips on approaching the research process when you have the germ of an idea for a novel, but not much else:

1. Cast your net wide. Later, as you dig more deeply into the meat of your story, specifics are essential, but at the earliest stages, they can be deadly. An unwritten novel can be about anything, and it’s a mistake to lock yourself into one particular conception before it’s absolutely necessary. It’s best, then, to begin your research with as general a view on the subject as possible—even to the point where the subject itself disappears. For Kamera, which is about the art world, I didn’t begin with books on art collecting, or even on the history of art, but with books on eyesight and visual perception. In particular, I began with James Elkins’s excellent Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?—a book I found at random in the library, as I’ll be discussing further below. And if it weren’t for an aside in Elkins’s book, I never would have thought of learning more about Marcel Duchamp, a decision that has shaped the past three years of my life, and counting. Careers are made from such moments.

2. Stay off the Internet. While the Internet certainly has its place in the research process—especially for checking the thousands of small, specific details in a novel that would be impossible to verify otherwise—it isn’t very good for dreaming. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and how the right side, which is where ideas come from, operates at a slower pace than the left. Doing research online is a classic left-brained activity: it’s fast, efficient, superficial. To lure out the right brain, you need to park yourself in a comfortable chair with a couple of the largest books you can find, because it’s often not until after a few hundred pages that the right brain finally kicks in. Sometimes you’ll emerge with only one good idea from a book of three hundred pages—as I recently did with The New Cold War by Edward Lucas—but it’s an idea that never would have occurred to you online. Books, in this case, are just better.

3. Read the books that nobody else reads. Books and authors go through cycles of popularity, and in my experience, it’s the books that are out of print or out of fashion that are the most fruitful for a writer’s work. Remember, we aren’t looking for factual accuracy, but to coax the right brain to life, a sensation that is almost inseparable, at least to me, from the smell of old books and bookstores. (Which, my dad says, is really the smell of mildew. “And happiness,” I reply.) If you’re doing research on a particular subject, unless it’s something like search engine optimization, look for books that were published before you were born: they’re likely to be better written, more eccentric, and more conducive to imagination than books that came out yesterday. The more recent the book, the more likely it conforms to currently fashionable habits of thought, which is the last thing a writer needs. (Example: an original edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, while useless as a reference book, is infinitely superior to more recent versions as a tool for dreaming.)

4. Let books find you. On this subject, I’ve already quoted Robert Graves, who said that the books he needed to write The White Goddess “were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a second-hand sea-side bookshop.” Most writers, I imagine, know how this feels. Perhaps the most useful book that I’ve found in the research for Midrash is James Billington’s great The Icon and the Axe, which I discovered in the dollar bin of the Housing Works Bookstore in New York. And I’ve already mentioned how the heart of Kamera was inspired by a chance library discovery. But such books will only find you if you’re prepared to recognize them when they appear—and if you haunt used bookstores and libraries on a regular basis. If you don’t already spend at least an hour a week browsing the stacks somewhere, you probably should.

5. Allow for randomness. Sometimes the best ideas come from sources that have nothing to do with your novel at all. It’s hard to predict when such moments will come—it can be when you’re watching television, or at the movies, or reading a novel on a plane—but it’s also possible to encourage them to appear. There are certain books in our culture that are treasure hoards of randomness, mines of ideas waiting to attach themselves to your imagination, and it’s crucial to find time for these books as well. You’ll probably have your own favorites, but my own indispensable lucky bags of ideas include Brewer’s Dictionary (the older the edition, the better), The Whole Earth Catalog (ditto), The Golden Bough, The White Goddess, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Eckermann’s Conversations of Goethe, and (a recent discovery) The Portable Dragon.

This, then, is the first stage of research, which involves endless browsing and daydreaming, and what seems like a lot of wasted time—as does much of a novelist’s life. But this stage is so essential that I recommend that you devote at least a month to it (though more than six weeks is verging on procrastination). Later, when you’re drawing on the well of ideas you’ve acquired, you’ll be very glad you did.

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