I Can’t Afford These First Editions, but I Buy Them Anyway
Why do I need Thomas Browne firsts? They are certainly not the books I reread the most. Nor are they the books I turn to for comfort. Browne’s style is thick and unnerving. “The Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and ’tis time to close the five ports of knowledge,” he writes in his conclusion to “The Garden of Cyrus,” his essay on the geometric patterns of plantations in the ancient and modern world. “We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasms of sleep, which often continueth praecogitations, making Cables of Cobwebbes and Wildernesses of handsome groves.” How many times do you have to read that sentence to understand it?
His books are not sensible and decent communication. He jars. Once, in Costa Rica, I was attacked by ants that crawled surreptitiously up my leg until, at a pheromonal signal, they bit at three different places at the exact same moment. The bites in themselves were not intense. But my nervous system had no idea how to react to the multiplicity. Where to slap first?
Reading Browne can be a little like that — a multiple sensation, not easy on the reader. But if ease and fluidity are the definition of successful communication, then television is by far the best book there is. The current model of cultural success is addiction: “I couldn’t put it down” is the ultimate compliment. It is easy to put Browne down. At times, you have to put him down. If you want something you can’t put down, pick up your phone. The bookish are a tribe in resistance now; this is the most essential change to our way of life as a people. Every person who picks up a book is consciously turning away from a screen.
Browne is not our contemporary; he is foreign to us. Reading other prose masters from roughly the same period can be a familiar experience. Michel de Montaigne is not that far from observational comedy. Jerry Seinfeld, in one of his opening bits, made the following joke: “It is pretty hard to justify, at this point in history, the existence of men and their handkerchiefs. I mean, they open it up, blow their nose in it, and then put it back in their pockets with their other valuables.” Four hundred years earlier, in his essay “Of Custom,” Montaigne remembered a friend using the exact same bit. “He asked me, what privilege this filthy excrement had, that we must carry about us a fine handkerchief to receive it, and, which was more, afterward to lap it carefully up, and carry it all day about in our pockets.”
Browne isn’t a self-justifying narcissist like Montaigne, like us. The power of Browne is the power of the sustained gaze, the delight of concentration on objects. If you take, say, some funeral urns found in a field in Norfolk, and you look at them and you keep looking at them and you try to understand and you keep trying to understand, they will change under your eyes. Browne’s best sentences possess the quality of a piece of glass held up into the light and turned.