Sunday, July 16, 2017

long-term reading.

I finished Moby-Dick a while back, and I've been a bit at loose ends trying to find something to replace it. I tried Don Quixote, but it turns out Moby-Dick's "stultifying, yet brilliant" character (1851) is quite unusual, and if Cervantes has that quality in Spanish--not likely, in 1605--he definitely loses it in English.

Sorting my e-book collection by word count, I've had Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire teed up for a while: at 1.3 million words, published starting in 1776, it's the biggest book I have, so the obvious candidate. The somewhat awe-inspiring hitch has been that I upload e-books to the Kindle service, so my page location syncs across the 3 devices I read on, but...the Kindle service won't accept anything bigger than 50 megabytes for upload, and the complete Gibbon is 58 megabytes.

I finally realized that:
  • My e-book files are all in uncomplicated pure-text formats, so it's not like trying to parse a Microsoft Word document;
  • All my books are in Calibre, which is not user-friendly, but does do almost anything you want; and
  • I'm a huge nerd and this just isn't a hard problem.
 (Calibre's user-hostility is proverbial. One example is that you can assign a book to a series, like Harry Potter, and you can assign a number within the series, like "1," except that instead of a boring integer like "1," you can use a real number, like "1.4," according to whatever scheme you prefer to use: publishing order, chronological order, both, whatever. Calibre doesn't judge. I myself did designate some book as number 0.6 for some reason, but that's more power than most people want to deal with.)

Naturally, Calibre has a Split plugin, which seamlessly split apart the three volumes into manageable bits. Then comes the weird part.

It's a really good book.

I don't mean that in a "there's footnotes with obsolete vocabulary and if you squint and place it in its proper historical context it's a lot less boring" kind of way. I mean that in a "this prose must have been sent back to 1781 from the future" kind of way. My only comparable experience is with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818, and one of the best science fiction books ever written). It's enough to start you thinking that all those people writing centuries of boring prose were actually bad writers, when they were probably like postmodernist scholars, imprisoned in an authorial Purgatory where they only get tenure if they use an incomprehensible writing style.

Seriously, though, Gibbon's writing is so approachable that I think its mystical aura I absorbed as a child came from never having seen it, and from adults overawed by the effort necessary to write what amounts to several PhD dissertations back-to-back, albeit without having to deal with Professor Jerkface on the Dissertation Board who's now rejected the thing, for the fifth time, with the same helpful comment "Too many semicolons; they tell the reader you don't believe in your topic."

  1. We know waaaaay more about the ancient world than Gibbon did. Topping the list of academic disciplines that would have knocked his socks off: archeology! Also anthropology, sociology, paleobiology, psychology, and quantum mechanics. Also feminism.
  2. I've traipsed through Roman history 3-4 times now: the podcasts The Ancient World and (surprise) The History of Rome, Anthony Everitt's The Rise of Rome, Christopher Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome, and maybe one or two others. I have a decent sense of where Gibbon has probably been superseded.
  3. I am the kind of person who would read Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to relax before bed.
See you at the end of Volume 1!

No comments:

Post a Comment