On Reading Gibbon

21 September, 2023

We all have at least one book that we’ve been meaning to read but wind up never cracking open. With me, for the longest time that book was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.

When I was about 15, I found a Penguin paperback of the abridged version of Decline at a used bookstore on Queen St. West in Toronto. Throughout my teens and into my 20s, that book sat on my bookshelf waiting for me to start reading it. Several times, I tried to do just that but could never commit.

To be honest, I was daunted by Gibbon’s book, even though it was the abridged version. Each time I reached for it, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I wasn’t ready on multiple levels to tackle such weighty subject matter. That I wasn’t ready to tackle a book of such scope and depth.

Jump forward to a few years ago, when I stumbled across a short article that Iggy Pop (yes, that Iggy Pop) wrote for the journal Classics Ireland. The three short pages of that piece laid out what Gibbon’s magnum opus meant to Pop, and those sentiments stuck with me. So much so that I became determined to finally read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

It helped that I stumbled across an ebook version, which I promptly added to my reading list for 2023. And that’s what I’m delving into at this moment, with these key points from Iggy Pop’s article floating in my brain as I absorb Gibbon’s prose:

The language in which this book is written is rich and complete, as the language of today is not.

I find out how little I know.

I am inspired by the will and erudition which enabled Gibbon to complete a work of 20-odd years. The guy stuck with things.

Scott Nesbitt