Thursday, November 20, 2014

Books: A Tale of Tub by Jonathan Swift, and Urne Burial by Sir Thomas Browne


Both of these books belong to the Penguin Great Ideas collection - judged by the powers at Penguin as books that have changed the world, shaping who we are as a civilisation - so I thought they might make for gripping reading. As it turned out, they books had me confounded and baffled in equal measure and they were rejected after the first sorties. Sometimes this is just how it is.

Urne burial (1658) is described as a 'profund consideration of the inevitability of death...the most fascinating and poignant of all reflections upon the vanity of mankind's lust for immortality.' This sounded like it could be fascinating but with typical paragraphs like the one that follows, I had to throw in the towel pretty sharpish:

"Civilians make sepulture but of the Law of Nations, others doe naturally found it and discover it also in animals. They that are so thick skinned as still to credit the story of the Phœnix, may say something for animall burning; More serious conjectures finde some examples of sepulture in Elephants, Cranes, the Sepulchrall Cells of Pismires and practice of Bees; which civill society carrieth out their dead, and hath exequies, if not interrments."

I seem almost alone in my lowly rating of Urne Burial. The Goodreads website gives it over four stars, with many praising the literary genius of Browne. I say almost alone because there is one reviewer who writes, 'weird, why did I read this?'. I'm on your page dude, I'm on your page.

I really wanted to enjoy A Tale of Tub by Jonathan Swift. As a fan of satires such as Candide by Voltaire, I though A Tale of Tub would be right up my street. Alas, it was not to be and the text proved overly ponderous and challenging, and the main story, about three characters representing three divides in Christianity, held little interest for this reader.

On the upside, I loved this entertaining quote: '...whereas wisdom is a fox, who after long hunting, will at last cost you the pains to dig out. It is a cheese which, by how much the richer, has the thicker, the homelier, and the coarser coat, and whereof to a judicious palate the maggots are the best. It is a sack-posset, wherein the deeper you go you will find it the sweeter. Wisdom is a hen whose cackling we must value and consider, because it is attended with an egg. But then, lastly, it is a nut, which, unless you choose with judgment, may cost you a tooth, and pay you with nothing but a worm.'

Also: 'But, finding the state has no farther occasion for me and my ink, I retire willingly to draw it out into speculations more becoming a philosopher; having, to my unspeakable comfort, passed a long life with a conscience void of offence.'

"It is a fatal miscarriage so ill to order affair as to pass for a fool in one company when in another your might be treated as a philosopher.''

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