Gibbon - Thoughts Upon Reading

William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, upon receiving the second volume from the author, 1781:

"Another damned, thick, square, book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?"

A correspondent who wishes to remain anonymous writes:

"One can say of Gibbon what Mark Twain said of whiskey: "Too much of anything is too much but too much whiskey is just right." I usually have a half dozen or more books underway at any time but I laid them all aside and was able to absorb the panoramic effect which is realized from a continuous and relatively short reading. I now have an historical framework of 14 centuries within which to put pieces which have for years laid neglected in the muck which constitutes what is left of my memory. The effect of a continuous reading of Gibbon is dazzling but you may have to postpone that for retirement or a lucky shipwreck.

"I read the Penguin edition which has a superb introduction. It was an intellectual feast. Gibbon's Memoirs are worth the attention of any reader of the history but I would suggest reading it after finishing the history. The footnotes were rich in interesting detail and the frequent references to Montesquieu caused me to inspect a copy of "The Spirit of the Laws" when I stumbled across it in a bookstore. I am now half way through it and the background acquired from reading Gibbon brings it to life. It was relied on by Madison (Federalist No. 47) and is of interest for its historic detail and importance in the history of political (including ours) ideas. It was first translated into English in 1750 but a new translation, Cambridge University Press, 1989, 1995 is the choice for the modern reader. It is well edited and richly repays the reader. To me, Montesquieu has been a name only and has been badly neglected. I would hope that the new translation would make him accessible to a larger reading audience."

A correspondent named "Rance" writes (on 1996 March 16):

"About ten years ago, as I was growing bored with newspaper reading on my daily trips to New York and back to Philadelphia, I started Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I'd had the 6-volume set for some years, one of many fine, old, numbered sets printed in the last century and bought by me during the previous decade from Bryn Mawr College's used book store. (An aside: none of the sets --- I have about ten or so --- had been read through. I know this because in each case, after a chapter or so, I had to slit the pages of the signatures as I read.)

"I was enthralled immediately with Gibbon's history. I believe Gibbon's opening sentence to be among the best of any work. It was difficult for me to get used to the lofty style, but after a chapter or two, I was acclimated. (It's still the case--it takes a chapter or so before my grammar and syntax can power up to Gibbon's level.) As I read I could hear in his cadences and phrasing the Gibbon that Winston Churchill credited with forming his own style.

"So began a fascinating journey in those fine, old books, one that I have recently begun again. And though I discovered the route by chance, may I recommend it to you?

"From the Roman Empire through the fall of the eastern empire (Gibbon, 6 volumes) change the scene to Spain, which began to form with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella about the time that the Turks sacked Constantinople. Follow Spain to its conquest of the Moors (Prescott, 4 volumes) to the Conquest of Mexico (Prescott, another 4 volumes), of the Incas (4 again) to the story of Charles V, King of Spain, the low countries, etc. and Holy Roman Emperor (Robertson, 5 volumes--included within the 19-volume set of Prescott's histories); finally to the unfinished story of Charles' son Philip, Elizabeth's suitor, then adversary whose Spanish Armada was defeated by her in 1588. Prescott died before completing his work on Philip, but Motley wrote about him from the Dutch perspective in his chronicle of their 80-year (!) struggle for Independence, The Founding of the Dutch Republic (4 volumes) and History of the United States of the Netherlands (another 3). Finally, move to Macauley's History of England from the Accession of James II, another 50 years in 10 volumes.

"I hope that first sentence of Gibbon's will hook others as it did me. I have found no modern writer of history who is able to write so clearly and nobly as those I mention above."

Another anonymous correspondent observes:

"I have Gibbon in the 6-volume Everyman edition. I first read him about 30 years ago when I was 21, having embarked on a voyage through English and world literature some two years earlier. It just swept me away, no one before or since has equalled his style, vision, intelligence. And the sly wit buried away in those footnotes! I remember eventually coming, having savoured every word, to that final sentence, 'It was among the ruins of the Capitol', etc.

"I felt numb, I had reached the end of a journey that I had wanted never to end. Of course, I would read it again and read other works of his, but I would never again read the Decline and Fall for the first time.

"The only other historian who approaches anywhere near Gibbon is Macaulay (having 'small Latine and lesse Greek' I cannot answer for Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, etc., although I enjoy their works vastly in translation)."

(correlates: CleanupHitter, EmersonOnInformationRetrieval, DoWithout, ...)