One of my favorite acquisitions from my summer of bookstore love is this little gem, The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (1975). It’s just what the title suggests: little anecdotes about famous literary figures, from Caedmon to Dylan Thomas.
Now, as I’ve written before, my parents are prolific readers who read aloud to me and my siblings well into our teenage years. My dad read me Queen Margot (Dumas), From Dawn to Decadence (Barzun), and Moby-Dick, among others.
But we never made it through Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, not because I disagreed with his analysis of the decline in civic virtue, but because I was bored to tears. Gibbon is a renowned stylist, and his footnotes are chatty and ironic. But frankly, my dear Gibbon, I don’t give a damn. I’m fairly certain that this was the start of my distaste for the eighteenth century’s history and literature. After all, it’s pretty difficult to top Paradise Lost and the Defenestration of Prague.
However, reading this little anecdote—
Gibbon took very little exercise. He had been staying some time with Lord Sheffield in the country; and when he was about to go away, the servants could not find his hat. ‘Bless me,’ said Gibbon, ‘I certainly left it in the hall on my arrival here.’ He had not stirred out of doors during the whole of the visit. (109)
—made me feel as if perhaps the pudgy English lord and I would have gotten along after all. As long as we didn’t talk about the Roman Empire.