Maladies, Remedies, and Anthologies: Medicine Taken at Its Word

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Maladies, Remedies, and Anthologies: Medicine Taken At Its Word The Body in the Library. A Literary Anthology of Modern Medicine. Iain Bamforth, ed. Verso 2003. 418pp. $30.00

The urge to anthologize seems to be one of those primordial drives, nestled in our genomes alongside the compulsions to eat heartily, imbibe lustily, and slaughter enemies willfully. Or at least that's how the Greeks appear to have experienced it.

In 90 BC the first known anthologist, Meleager of Gadara, anthologized his own poetry (another ingrained habit, it seems) along with that of forty-six other Greek literary lights, including Archilocus, Simonides, Alcaeus, and Anacreon. He described each poem as a flower, and his selection and arrangement of these poems as a woven headband of flowers, and thus chose the title Anthologia, meaning "garland."

Phillippus of Thessalonica put forth the next garland in AD 40. He, too, did not hesitate to include his own work. But while able to secure a place in history as an editor, Phillippus apparently had limited poetic skills and tended to borrow heavily from those before him, in both style and content.

Five hundred years later, Acathias of Byzantium added a new twist: he organized the selections by topic. Suddenly an editor was not just the person who stapled together the poems she or he liked, but someone who could illuminate particular themes by means of layout and design. Acathias also hit upon another editorial strategy: Start with what readers already know and like, then slip in new stuff where you can. Between substantial selections from both Meleager's and Phillippus's anthologies, he sprinkled in work by contemporary poets who didn't possess quite the same publishing pedigrees.

Cephalus, in tenth-century Constantinople, continued this noble tradition, snagging poems from Mealager, Phillippus, and Acathius, then weaving in modern ones, including the more risqué homoerotic verses of Straton of Sardis. Cephalus organized his anthology according to type of poem (poems in particular meters, riddles, satirical poems) as well as subject (love poems, homosexual poems, religious poems, morality poems). In 1301, another Byzantine monk, Maximus Planudes, re-edited Cephalus' anthology with a decidedly heavy hand on the red pen. Rather than adding extra poems as the editors before him did, Planudes mainly deleted the poems he found unsuitable and even bowdlerized some of the remaining ones to suit his taste. (You can probably guess which poems got the axe.) The Planudean collection, along with the Palatine Anthology (named for Count Palatine, in whose Heidelberg library the manuscript was found), make up what is now called the Greek Anthology. While many literary projects are blithely labeled "works in progress," this anthology, reworked by at least five editors over fourteen hundred years and containing more than six thousand poems, probably takes the cake. (The English-speaking world didn't catch wind of the anthologizing craze until 1557, when Richard Tottel published a compendium of English poetry called Tottel's Miscellany, beginning a tradition of eponymous titles carried to totemic status by Norton.)

Why is the urge to anthologize so potent? With the groundswell of writing that started before Meleager and that has grown-with the help of the Internet-into a publishing tsunami, we are awash in words. Books, magazines, journals, and newspapers slosh about our legs as we slog through the literary labors of daily life. And that's just the contemporary flotsam! Behind us spreads the infinite sea of history. How then to identify the good stuff, the meaningful stuff? How to tease out overarching themes, to trace ancient influences on modern-day thought? How to extract the pith? How to make it possible for the overworked, the underpaid, the timid, the skittish, and the lazy to scan centuries of the written word in a single sitting?

Enter the garland weavers. While anthologies were once the province of cloistered literary scholars, they have now spread to all disciplines. …