Comfort Reading

The sort of books I go for when I want something that I know will make me feel ok.

Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes

A 19th-century mathematician goes through his library looking for all the paradoxers, using the old-fashioned definition: a paradox is a belief which runs against the learned opinion of one’s contemporaries, not a logical antinomy or conundrum. Mostly circle-squarers, with a sprinkling of finders of the longitude and confounders of Newton. I know that my taste for De Morgan is a bit of an affectation but there are moments when I really do think he’s one of the forgotten masters of English prose. De Morgan may be the first of the scientific debunkers.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

Not a melancholy book at all, with the most beautiful and demented sentences of any author I’ve read, even including Joyce. Take Burton’s description of himself from his preface, which starts almost as an apology for his cloistered existence, and slowly and gloriously expands to include the whole world and everything in it:

A mere spectator of other men’s fortunes and adventures, and how they act their parts, which methinks are diversely presented unto me, as from a common theatre or scene. I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c., daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies and sea-fights; peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, corantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, &c. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, tomorrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh: he thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, &c.


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