Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Life of Samuel Johnson

The Life of Samuel Johnson is one of those books that if you read a lot, particularly if you read a lot about literature, just keeps coming up. I first met Johnson and Boswell in The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman. Again I met them in The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. Eventually I felt like I was hearing Boswell mentioned all the time, and after reading a review of a new biography of Johnson in The London Review of Books, I decided that it was time that I paid an overdue visit to the home of Boswell and Johnson. It is a daunting book, a very long and large book, and I did not imagine that I would really be able to read it. But an audiobook is a different story -- I could commit 30 minutes a day to that via my commute. Surely, there must be one at the Pittsburgh library -- but there was not! Did one exist? It turns out, it does exist -- an edition on CD from Blackstone audiobooks. Maybe I'll just buy it? Turns out it is 43 hours, and costs $200! On a whim, I put in a request to the library, asking whether they would consider buying it. I got a prompt response: they were surprised they did not own it, and would be glad to order it for their collection. And so, not only was I able to listen to it, I got it fresh from the publisher. But could I really sit through 43 CDs? It turns out I could!

It is kind of funny that the book is so acclaimed. Its moments of insight are rare. What it possesses is something special: a deep love of the biographer for his subject. What seems to have happened, more or less, was the James Boswell was a big time fanboy of Samuel Johnson. And at some point when Boswell was in his twenties, and Johnson was in his fifties, Boswell gets to meet his idol. They become friends, and Boswell then spends the next decades slavishly diarizing every encounter he has with Johnson, and everything he hears about him. This results in a somewhat peculiar biography: Johnson's first fifty years are covered somewhat briskly, and in summary. Then the book settles down with day by day descriptions of what Johnson did and said, often word for word, with conversations presented as if they were the script of a play. The result is not a view of Johnson from a distance, but the feeling that you are sitting in an eighteenth century drawing room with Boswell and Johnson, being part of the conversation. Some of this conversation, naturally is about philosophy, but most of it is gossip, and arguably, the value of the book comes more from the picture of eighteenth century life that it paints, rather than for its picture of Johnson's life in particular. Details of how book publishing worked at that time are spoken of in detail (the booksellers themselves were often the publishers, and authors generally paid a fixed price with no royalties) and one hears about all kinds of details of daily life that you might not find out any other way. For example, London apparently had a law limiting the number of hansom cabs, giving out exactly 1000 licenses, which were displayed prominently on each cab. Johnson mentions a day when he happened to notice cab #1 and number #1000 parked right next to each other. Interesting, this system seems to have changed little in about 200 years.

As for Johnson himself, he is a very strange figure. Fat, ugly to the point of disfigurement, slovenly, limping, and with strange tics and mannerisms. Despite all this, he was not only incredibly accomplished, but proud to the point of arrogance. He had strong opinions on everything. He seems like the kind of person whose brash intensity would push most people away, and one sometimes gets the impression that he was included in London society primarly as an amusing figure, as a sort of freak. But he clearly had several close friends, who appreciated the double-edged sword of brash truth. Boswell is constantly relating conversations where Johnson got "very hot" (angry) to the point he would lose his temper. But it would take a person of a peculiar temperament to write a whole dictionary himself. For while Johnson did a lot of writing, this is clearly his most singular accomplishment: writing the very first English dictionary. A French dictionary existed at this time, created by dozens of professors over many years. Somehow, through intense effort, Johnson created a complete dictionary almost completely by himself, in just a few years. Further, his greater accomplishment may be his creation of a magazine called The Rambler, which he mostly penned by himself, and was widely celebrated for its insight and overall excellence. One suspects he must have been somewhere on the autism spectrum, and used that to his full advantage.

Anyway, I'm glad I took time to experience this entire book. It gave me a great view of life in the eighteenth century, it rekindled my interest in Latin (Johnson is constantly quoting Juvenal and others), and I feel like I got to know Johnson and Boswell. This book is perhaps best known for its Johnson quotes: here are a few of my favorites.

  • Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.
  • No man ever yet became great by imitation.
  • Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.
  • A boy should be introduced to such books by having his attention directed to the arrangement, to the style, and other excellencies of composition; that the mind being thus engaged by an amusing variety of objects may not grow weary.
  • WHO is ruined by gaming? You will not find six instances in an age.
  • All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.
  • A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out.
  • Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.
  • Getting money is not all a man's business: to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.
  • He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man.
  • What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
  • Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.
  • Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
and finally, this one, which I think sums up Johnson perfectly:
  • Don't think of retiring from the world until the world will be sorry that you retire. I hate a fellow whom pride or cowardice or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl. Let him come out as I do, and bark.
I feared I would not be able to make it through such a long and strange book. But once I settled to its rhythm, I really enjoyed it, and when it was over, I find that I missed visiting with Boswell and Johnson each day. 

You may have noticed that I haven't written much in my blog lately. With everything I have going on, it's been hard to fit writing into my life, hard to decide where it should fit. But even though I finished this book some time ago, it has continued to be on my mind, I think partly because it is a book about the discipline of writing. It certainly is about Johnson's discipline, but also Boswell's: if he did not have the discipline to so thoroughly diarize his conversations with Johnson, this book wouldn't exist. I have some hard decisions to make about how to fit the discipline of writing into my own life. In any case, I'm very glad to be able to check this book off my list, and I'm pleased with the impressions it has left on my life and habits.


  1. The timing reminds me of this https://www.amazon.com/Correspondence-Shelby-Foote-Walker-Percy/dp/0393317684 where one side of the penpal relationship didn't save letters for the first two decades so the record is unbalanced