On reading bad books

We all have the urge to throw a book across the room at some point or another. Some take it out in pen(cil) on the book itself. I just came across a particularly nice example in a paper by Tony Grafton. Jonathan Swift’s response to reading the Church History (Annales) by the Catholic historian Baronio:

Pessimus inter pessimos scriptores,

falsissimus inter falsissimos,

nugacissimus inter nugacissimos,

insulsissimus inter insulsissimos,

ita post lectionem duodecim voluminum ira et taedio percitus censui.


Jonath. Swift

A.D. 1729

Which might (inelegantly) translate as:

Worst among the worst writers,

Biggest liar among the biggest liars,

Flimsiest among the flimsiest,

Silliest among the silliest,

So, roused by anger and disgust after reading twelve volumes, I offer my opinion.


Jonathan Swift

A. D. 1729

Grafton mentions the wink to Tacitus (playing with the latter’s claim to write history sine ira et studio), though I wondered if Swift was also thinking of Catullus’ ironic address to Cicero in his poem 49 (dissertissime Romuli nepotum), in which the poet knowingly calls himself pessimus omnium poeta. Certainly the adjectives feel quite Catullan.

At any rate, we’ve all been there.


(Reference: A. Grafton, “Arnaldo Momigliano and the Tradition of Ecclesiastical History,” In T.J. Cornell and O. Murray (eds.) The Legacy of Arnaldo Momigliano. London, 2014: 68)


Update: Right after I published this post, I was looking around online for more sources for Swift’s comment on Baronius and found a reference to this note in the Dublin University Review for 1885, with two more lines of the text at the start:

At vos venite in ignem.

Annales Buronii Caesaris, cacata charta

Translatable as:

And you come into the fire,

Annales of Cesare Baronio, shitty paper

If these are really Swiftian (I wonder why Grafton would have not quoted them?), then my Catullan instinct was close: these lines virtually quote Catullus 36 (Annales Volusi, cacata carta…at vos interea venite in ignem). I really should have thought of this poem – the homonymy of the title of the bad literary works must have been what provoked Swift to write. As he saw, Catullus had been there too.

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