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Poet, lexicographer, critic, moralist and Great Cham, Dr. Johnson had in his friend Boswell the ideal biographer. Notoriously and self-confessedly intemperate, Boswell shared with Johnson a huge appetite for life and threw equal energy into recording its every aspect in minute but telling detail. This irrepressible Scotsman was 'always studying human nature and making exper Poet, lexicographer, critic, moralist and Great Cham, Dr. Johnson had in his friend Boswell the ideal biographer. Notoriously and self-confessedly intemperate, Boswell shared with Johnson a huge appetite for life and threw equal energy into recording its every aspect in minute but telling detail. This irrepressible Scotsman was 'always studying human nature and making experiments', and the marvelously vivacious Journals he wrote daily furnished him with first-rate material when he came to write his biography. The result is a masterpiece that brims over with wit, anecdote and originality. Hailed by Macaulay as the best biography ever written and by Carlyle as a book 'beyond any other product of the eighteenth century', The Life of Samuel Johnson today continues to enjoy its status as a classic of the language. This shortened version is based on the 1799 edition, the last in which the author had a hand.


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Poet, lexicographer, critic, moralist and Great Cham, Dr. Johnson had in his friend Boswell the ideal biographer. Notoriously and self-confessedly intemperate, Boswell shared with Johnson a huge appetite for life and threw equal energy into recording its every aspect in minute but telling detail. This irrepressible Scotsman was 'always studying human nature and making exper Poet, lexicographer, critic, moralist and Great Cham, Dr. Johnson had in his friend Boswell the ideal biographer. Notoriously and self-confessedly intemperate, Boswell shared with Johnson a huge appetite for life and threw equal energy into recording its every aspect in minute but telling detail. This irrepressible Scotsman was 'always studying human nature and making experiments', and the marvelously vivacious Journals he wrote daily furnished him with first-rate material when he came to write his biography. The result is a masterpiece that brims over with wit, anecdote and originality. Hailed by Macaulay as the best biography ever written and by Carlyle as a book 'beyond any other product of the eighteenth century', The Life of Samuel Johnson today continues to enjoy its status as a classic of the language. This shortened version is based on the 1799 edition, the last in which the author had a hand.

30 review for The Life of Samuel Johnson

  1. 5 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    This is a book which is not about a thing but is the thing itself. I think there’s a complicated German philosophical term for that. In the history books they will tell you Samuel Johnson is dead these 200 years, but I say No Sir. He’s alive, here, right here. He’s walking and talking and wringing the necks of fools right here. In this book’s oceanic vastness of pages Boswell the drunk, the fool, the butt of japes, the ignoble toady, creates the reality tv of 18th century London. There are verbat This is a book which is not about a thing but is the thing itself. I think there’s a complicated German philosophical term for that. In the history books they will tell you Samuel Johnson is dead these 200 years, but I say No Sir. He’s alive, here, right here. He’s walking and talking and wringing the necks of fools right here. In this book’s oceanic vastness of pages Boswell the drunk, the fool, the butt of japes, the ignoble toady, creates the reality tv of 18th century London. There are verbatim conversations, many of them, whole eveningsworths of them. If Bozzy had had a camcorder he’d have done that but he didn’t so he invented his own version of shorthand and made excuses every half an hour or so during the boisterous hours of high-powered debate with SJ & his pals and nipped off to the lavatory where he scribbled his hieroglyphs on his cuff or on a napkin. Like any reality tv show you get sucked into that world, so that even the boring bits are interesting. It helps that the language is so thrillingly grandiloquent and the people so piquant, so flavoursome. Oh yes, even thought this biography is as long as Lord of the Rings, there are various bits that Bozzy didn’t dare include, but that.s okay, he wrote them all down in his journals, which 150 years later were all published for our delectation, so you can get hold of everything. Such as the question of Samuel Johnson’s sex life : Excerpt from Boswell’s journal published as “The Applause of the Jury” LONDON, 20th April 1783 LOWE. I do not believe his marriage was consummated. BOSWELL. Do you know, ma’am, that there really was a connexion between him and his wife? You understand me. MRS DESMOULINS. Yes, yes sir. Nay, Garrick knew it was consummated, for he peeped through the keyhole, and behaved like a rascal, for he made the Doctor ridiculous all over the country by describing him running around the bed after she had lain down, and crying “I’m coming, my Tetsie, I’m coming, my Tetsie!” In Life of Johnson, this is rendered into more acceptable language: In particular the young rogues used to listen at the door of his bed-chamber, and peep through the keyhole, that they might turn into ridicule his tumultuous and awkward fondness for Mrs Johnson, whom he used to name by the familiar appellation Tetsie When Johnson was alive, he was something of a one-man industry all by himself (Dictionary, Shakespeare, Rasselas, Idler, Rambler, Lives of Poets) and after he was dead it seems every other person in literary London wrote a book about him. There were two biographies before Boswell's, and his publishers were kind of anxious - "Come on Bozzy, you're being scooped here, let's get your book out and cash in while people still aren't sick of the name of the great Doctor" But Boswell was supremely confident in what he'd got, which was this book. He waited seven years to publish this Life, and when he did, everyone knew what it was : a masterpiece of world literature. But : this may be a little distressing, but when you have finished Boswell’s 1350 pages, you will probably then need to read an actual biography of Samuel Johnson, which, remarkably, this book really isn’t. Because it’s so Boz-centric, because Boswell knew what he had (the goods) and it made him a lazy arse who couldn’t be bothered to find stuff out if he had to work for it. Because what had happened was that Boswell was a major SJ fan and wangled a meeting with SJ when he was 22 and SJ was 54. He got SJ to like him, he was a real groupie, but he lived in Scotland. So from age 54 until SJ died, i.e. another 20 years, Bozzy would use his two weeks of holidays to visit London and be with SJ. And those are the days and evenings we get in minute detail in this book. The first 54 years are written about with verve but with an obvious desire to crack on to the bit where Boswell himself enters the story. Boswell finds himself very interesting too. You could really go mental if you want with all this stuff. You could read this vast thing, then you could read all of Boswell's journals - about twelve volumes. then you could read Johnson's account of A Journey to the Western isles of Scotland, then Boswell's version of the same trip, called Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides. Then as a corrective to all that, you could read Young Samuel Johnson by James Clifford, which is brilliant, and wind up with John Wain's magnificent actual biography of SJ. You could also throw in Mrs Thrale's memoir too, which contains lots of gems, such as ON SCOTLAND A friend of that nation, at his return from the Hebrides, asked him what he thought of his country. “That is a very vile country to be sure, Sir.” “Well, Sir”, replies the other, somewhat mortified, “God made it.” “Certainly he did” (answers Mr Johnson) “but we must always remember that he made it for Scotchmen.” ON THE POOR AN ACQUAINTANCE OF DR JOHNSON : "What signifies giving halfpence to common beggars? They only lay it out in gin or tobacco.” Note : this question is still brilliantly contemporary, people say it every time they pass a modern day beggar except gin or tobacco has become Diamond White and drugs. I myself have said this. “DR JOHNSON : And why should they be denied such sweeteners of existence? It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own existence. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer” You could go on, and indeed, I would urge that you do, because, all disclaimers aside, I think you'll have a great time.

  2. 5 out of 5

    W.D. Clarke

    Whew! Nearly four months, already? The thing about insanely long books like this one (1300pp of tiny, tiny type!) is that if you have at most an hour or two to read each day, you really do live with them over time and they become almost a part of the family. You have your little spats with them, they say the most insane or embarrassing things sometimes, but deep down you feel this unbreakable connection and find that you can't do without them, and as I imagine my mom saying to us at Xmas (paraph Whew! Nearly four months, already? The thing about insanely long books like this one (1300pp of tiny, tiny type!) is that if you have at most an hour or two to read each day, you really do live with them over time and they become almost a part of the family. You have your little spats with them, they say the most insane or embarrassing things sometimes, but deep down you feel this unbreakable connection and find that you can't do without them, and as I imagine my mom saying to us at Xmas (paraphrasing Jimmie Dale Gilmore), you're glad to see them come, and kinda glad to see them go--until they're gone, that is, and immediately you want them back again... So no real review on this one --how is one to review a member of the family, who at times seems an entire world to you? A universe? Ahh, quote Hamlet then... HAMLET My father!--methinks I see my father. HORATIO Where, my lord? HAMLET In my mind's eye, Horatio. HORATIO I saw him once; he was a goodly king. HAMLET He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again. I cannot recommend this more highly, and thank our friend ATJG for goading me into it. Definitely worth coming home to, maybe one day sooner rather than later I will do just that, too.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    The Life of Samuel Johnson is many things: charming, witty, vivacious, absorbing, edifying, beautiful; part philosophy and part history, with some politics and religion on the side. It is ironic, then, that one of the few things it most definitely is not is a biography. James Boswell was not interested in creating a record of Johnson’s life, but a portrait of his personality. As a result, Boswell rapidly plowed through the time of Johnson’s life that the two weren’t acquainted—the first fifty y The Life of Samuel Johnson is many things: charming, witty, vivacious, absorbing, edifying, beautiful; part philosophy and part history, with some politics and religion on the side. It is ironic, then, that one of the few things it most definitely is not is a biography. James Boswell was not interested in creating a record of Johnson’s life, but a portrait of his personality. As a result, Boswell rapidly plowed through the time of Johnson’s life that the two weren’t acquainted—the first fifty years—and dedicated the bulk of the book to the time that the two were friends—the last twenty years of Johnson’s life. The book is less a narrative than a collection of quotes and anecdotes. In fact, a much more accurate title of this book would be The Idle Talk of Samuel Johnson. If a book of this format had been written by almost any other person in the history of the world, I’m sure it would be unreadable. But Boswell has such a fine knack for suggestive details, for memorable quotes, for personality quirks—in short, for all the subtle and charming details of daily life—that the book is not only readable, but compulsively readable. Boswell’s Life is a testament to the fact that the idle talk of a drawing room can be just as momentous as the ebb and flow of human history, or the thoughts of the greatest philosophers. It is a celebration of the epic in the everyday, the magnificent in the mundane. Not to say that Johnson is either everyday or mundane. Quite the opposite: he is as great a character as any in literature. Nay, more so. Because this book was so obviously the product of a fan-boy mentality, I have no idea what Johnson the man was actually like. But Boswell’s characterization of him couldn’t be surpassed, or even equaled, by the most skillful of novelists. Accurate or not, it is damned fine writing. What really gives fire to this otherwise mundane collection of anecdotes is Boswell’s near-insane hero worship. Every mild opinion, every offhand quip, every casual remark uttered by Johnson is treated by Boswell as gospel. His reverence for the man is boundless; and his idolatry comes through in every sentence. It’s endearing at first; almost overpowering by the end. Boswell makes the man into a myth, and the myth into a man. Nonetheless, it is, at times, hard to see what Boswell sees in Johnson. For every piece of wisdom or wit that Johnson produces, there are three pieces of folly. He hated the Scotch, the French, the Americans—basically everyone who wasn’t both an Englishman and a Tory—all for no reason whatsoever. No good reason, anyway. He was socially, religiously, and politically conservative. He was rude, overbearing, and often closed-minded. He would argue a point that even he didn't endorse, merely to command a conversation. And Boswell doesn’t appear very likable, either. He was servile, toadyish, and invasive. However much he may have reverenced Johnson, Boswell did not respect the man’s privacy or confidence. In fact, it sometimes felt like Boswell’s entire purpose of hanging around Johnson was to advance his own literary career; and that his idealization of Johnson was just a form of self-service, since he was connected with the deceased writer. I can’t imagine having someone like that around me, hurrying off to jot down every thing I said—not that I’m at risk for such a thing. Besides the unpleasantness of the two principal characters, this book has other flaws. Its most notable one is its lack of organization. Boswell just moves from one quip to the next, interspersing conversations with Johnson’s letters and diary entries. Boswell was incomparable for his attention to detail; but he apparently was unable to step back and see the forest, rather than just the trees. Even Johnson’s death is rendered as a series of disconnected pieces of information, rather than a simple narrative. In short, Boswell saw life through a magnifying glass; and it’s hard to put together a map with a magnifying glass. But this is not a book that attempts to conceal its flaws. Rather, it glories in its own imperfection. And, now that I think of it, the most important message of Boswell’s book might be this: that the greatest things in life are great precisely because of their imperfections. Boswell's Life of Johnson certainly is.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Smiley

    I walked to visit Dr. Johnson's House at 17 Gough Square, London in England on July 5, 1997 in the evening alone. I also bought this great biography there (10.99 pounds) and had since kept reading off and on till I reached its final page on November 5, 2001. I had known this book since my early teens and thus I have my own respect for Dr. Johnson for his humility with his literary brilliance as well as his fame and recognition from the Universities of Dublin and Oxford with the two honorary doct I walked to visit Dr. Johnson's House at 17 Gough Square, London in England on July 5, 1997 in the evening alone. I also bought this great biography there (10.99 pounds) and had since kept reading off and on till I reached its final page on November 5, 2001. I had known this book since my early teens and thus I have my own respect for Dr. Johnson for his humility with his literary brilliance as well as his fame and recognition from the Universities of Dublin and Oxford with the two honorary doctorates . This book is unabridged, therefore, it is a bit formidable to you with its 1,492 pages. You can learn a lot from his witty quotes and his various anecdotes witnessed by Boswell and his friends. I would like to recommend this ground-breaking biography to any serious reader curious of his wit, wisdom and character. There was of course an episode, whenever I read it I can't help admiring and respecting him more as a true scholar I'm happy to know and be familiar with this biography, depicting his first encounter with young James Boswell who had longed to meet Dr. Johnson since he was one of the literary celebrities in London. And we can see how kind, humorous and formidable he was to a young stranger he had never met before from the following excerpt: At last, on Monday the 16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr. Davies's back-parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us, -- he announced his aweful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost, 'Look, my Lord, it comes.' I found that I had a very perfect idea of Johnson's figure, from the portrait of him painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds soon after he had published his Dictionary, in the attitude of sitting in his easy chair in deep meditation, which was the first picture his friend did for him, which Sir Joshua very kindly presented to me, and from which an engraving has been made for this work. Mr. Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, 'Don't tell where I come from.' -- 'From Scotland,' cried Davies roguishly. 'Mr. Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.' I am willing to flatter myself that I meant this as a pleasantry to sooth and concilliate him, and not as an humiliating abasement at the expence of my country. But however that might be, this speech was somewhat unlucky; for with that quickness of wit for which he was so remarkable, he seized the expression 'come from Scotland,' which I used on the sense of being of that country, and, as if I had said that I had come away from it, or left it, retorted, 'That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.' This stroke stunned me a good deal; and when we had sat down, I felt myself not a little embarrassed, and apprehensive of what might come next. ... (pp. 276-278) Interestingly, there is a footnote informing its readers on his humility regarding one of the most prestigious titles in the academia and beyond, as we can see from this excerpt: It is remarkable that he never, so far as I know, assumed his title of Doctor, but called himself Mr. Johnson, as appears from many of his cards or notes to myself; and I have seen many from him to other persons, in which he uniformly takes that designation. I once observed on his table a letter directed to him with the addition of Esquire, and objected to it as being a designation inferiour to that of Doctor; but he checked me, and seemed pleased with it, because, as I conjectured, he liked to be sometimes taken out of the class of literary men, and to be merely genteel, ... (p. 605) In retrospect as my humble, respectful tribute to such a great man of letters, I can't help wondering why its original title has not been retained, that is, 'Life of Johnson,' instead of 'The Life of Johnson' as seen in most recent reprints nowadays since, I'm quite sure that James Boswell himself has since then decidedly opted for this unique 'Life of Johnson' (without 'The'); therefore, the literary posterity should safely follow suit and, hopefully, a growing number of Johnsonians could find the original title more aesthetically nostalgic, penetrating and professional than the transformed one (When was the definite article first added?).

  5. 4 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    I might be too exhausted from reading the thing to write a proper review. Just holding it takes a toll on my sub-ganymedic upper body. The first thing to note is that I'd much rather read more Boswell than read more of Johnson's letters. Boswell's writing is like that of eighteenth century philosophers: totally unselfconscious, they simply say what they mean. Later theoreticians will undermine a lot of it, and try to find latent contradictions and so on, but the fact is that most people are a pl I might be too exhausted from reading the thing to write a proper review. Just holding it takes a toll on my sub-ganymedic upper body. The first thing to note is that I'd much rather read more Boswell than read more of Johnson's letters. Boswell's writing is like that of eighteenth century philosophers: totally unselfconscious, they simply say what they mean. Later theoreticians will undermine a lot of it, and try to find latent contradictions and so on, but the fact is that most people are a pleasant enough mixture of pious fool and slatternly knave, and Boswell (and Johnson) aren't interested in dissimulating about it. The sheer volume of anecdote here means that you'll come away with a reasonable understanding of the important men and women of the time. Goldsmith comes off wonderfully well; I'll be much more interested in seeing Gainsborough portraits than before I read it; Gibbon lurks on the fringes; Burke was glorious; Fanny Burney and Elizabeth Montagu receive nothing but praise from all of these presumably misogynistic men; Richardson was, as you'd expect, kind of a dick; Smollett kind of a dick in a way I find far more entertaining; Fielding barely gets a look it. For all that, I admit to skimming much of the final quarter, which was more about Johnson alone than about the Age of Johnson. The anecdotes get tiresome, the letters ever duller, and Boswell effaces himself more and more. So if you're considering reading this, do not do it the way I did: "THIS IS THE WINTER OF BOSWELL! I WILL READ IT OVER WINTER BREAK!" Because, unless you're superhuman, you won't. I finished it over Spring break instead, and even that was a bad idea. Instead, keep the book next to your bed and dip into it each night, living with Bos and Sam and co., for a year. And absolutely read this, the Womersley edited Penguin edition. It's a weightlifting session, yes, but it's also a mini-dictionary of the eighteenth century unto itself. The biographical index alone is a lifetime's scholarly work. Now, if only Womersley would put out an abridged edition that I could carry on a bus...

  6. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    When you major in what is called "English" at college, certain inconvenient figures present themselves. One is Ben Jonson who is inconvenient because it is so much more rewarding and taxing to spend your time on Shakespeare, although Jonson also was a major dramatist during Shakespeare's day. Another inconvenient figure is William Blake, the poet often grouped with the "Romantics," but clearly not one of them and a study unto himself, sui generis, one of a kind. If you're going to study Blake, yo When you major in what is called "English" at college, certain inconvenient figures present themselves. One is Ben Jonson who is inconvenient because it is so much more rewarding and taxing to spend your time on Shakespeare, although Jonson also was a major dramatist during Shakespeare's day. Another inconvenient figure is William Blake, the poet often grouped with the "Romantics," but clearly not one of them and a study unto himself, sui generis, one of a kind. If you're going to study Blake, you have to take him on whole and in extenso, not side-by-side with anyone. An easier figure of inconvenience in some ways, but deceptively so, is the titanic figure of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). He's inconvenient because he was protean-a poet, a lexicographer, a critic, a dramatist, an essayist, a biographer, and some things I've not doubt left out--letter-writer, for instance. On top of all that comes the extensive biography of Johnson written by his young friend, James Boswell, which is either the best or the worst way to get to know Johnson. For decades I decided it would be the worst way to get to know him. The Johnson I spent most time on in college was Johnson the critic of Shakespeare. Having just taken a look back what I then read, my recollection proves correct: he was an uncommonly astute, forthright, plain-spoken critic. He points out all the plot flaws in Hamlet the play, for example, without diminishing the enigmatic genius of Hamlet the character for whom the play is known. Johnson wrote to be read and had either the self-confidence or temerity to believe that by criticizing Shakespeare for his flaws, he actually built up his strengths. But last week I decided to take on volume 1 of Boswell on Johnson, and now I've finished it, or perhaps I should say half-finished it because, to my surprise, it ends with a huge quantity of appendices and footnotes, and I have never in my life enjoyed reading appendices, footnotes, or introductions either by some notable editor or the author himself. In one case, Nabokov's Pale Fire, I know I've cut myself out of the fun, but that's pretty much the exception. My rule is that if it's important, it's in the text; if not, not…ignore it. The Johnson Boswell presents--and he presents him well--is exactly the sprawling figure who doesn't fit comfortably in any multi-author syllabus. He wrote for a living for decades, never stopped writing, and when it came to producing a one-author dictionary of the English language (a task for which the French or Italians would assign forty scholars), he would do that, too. He was Addison and Steele, a bit of Pope, a Boswell himself to many other authors, and something of a Dostoevsky in that like Dostoevsky he produced his own newspapers from time to time, writing the copy from first word to last. I don't recommend you pick up your very own copy of Boswell on Johnson unless it's been standing unread on your shelf since undegraduate days. Then perhaps you'll find value in considering the kinds of giants who once walked the earth and are very difficult to conjure in the present day. From childhood on Johnson read, recalled what he read, and formed astute opinions about what he read. He was a principal figure in the Age of Reason, but not an idealist, with one exception. His preferred mode of analysis was from the specific to the general. He thought that gave a truer, if less sweet, account of reality. Where he wandered into idealism, it seems to me, was in his Christianity. Flummoxed by mortality, unable to puzzle out its ultimate purposes, he happily enough left the hard work of determining why we are here to God. Today we have one literary figure who idolizes Samuel Johnson. That is Harold Bloom, who considers Johnson his guide and master. Multi-talented himself, Bloom does exhibit Johnson's astonishing erudition and productivity. Reading Bloom's book on Shakespeare, I recall, was like having an extended conversation with a better literary friend than I've had in person. I also recall how much the leading Shakespeare critics of our day hated what he'd written. Why? Because Bloom focused on character, because Bloom explored Shakespeare's language and worldview…because Bloom wouldn't bow down to the recent pseudo-scientific schools of literary criticism that have, pardon the pun, bloomed and wilted one after another over the last twenty-five years. What I like in particular about Johnson as Boswell presents him are the following: --He often took the opposite side of an argument not because it was his but for the fun of it; --He was a lifelong depressive, given to deep fits of dark despair; --He was a compulsive-obsessive: he never crossed a threshold with the wrong foot, and if he was about to, he retreated and took another shot at it; --He had the wisdom to observe that as you grow older, your friends die off, so you better make a point of getting some new, younger friends…and quick. --He was a loyal, generous, talkative, discursive friend; --He was a giant of his age and regarded himself as a pygmy; --He castigated himself for his unstructured reading habits…but made up for them by reading everything; --He was a big, disheveled, goofy guy with tics galore who cocked his head sideways when he was making a point and upon doing so sometimes had to huff and puff to catch his breath; --When he made a mistake, as he did in his definition of a horse's pastern, he attributed it to "ignorance," and made nothing more of it, not defensive at all; --And he almost never shot back at someone who criticized him; he'd had his say, let them have theirs. (Never complain, never explain as Disraeli put it.) So all this is why I call Samuel Johnson inconvenient. He was a prolific genius who took literature seriously enough to give his life to it. In literary studies we won't really come upon someone like him until Coleridge in his later-life talkative mode. But when we get to Coleridge as undergraduates, as you'll recall, we group him comfortably among the "Romantics," and we tend to ignore the inconvenience of his having continued to to busy himself with the philosophical dimensions of literature for decades after his poet's pen had run dry. For more of my comments on literature, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).

  7. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Wilson

    I recently included a "bucket book" in my line-up of books I am reading. These are books I really ought to have read by this time in my life, but which, alas, I have not. This book, The Life of Samuel Johnson, was the first in this roster that I have completed. Having done so, it continues to strike me as a really good idea. Boswell mentions near the end of the book that those who took the time to read "may be considered as well acquainted with him." I think this is quite true, and gaining the ac I recently included a "bucket book" in my line-up of books I am reading. These are books I really ought to have read by this time in my life, but which, alas, I have not. This book, The Life of Samuel Johnson, was the first in this roster that I have completed. Having done so, it continues to strike me as a really good idea. Boswell mentions near the end of the book that those who took the time to read "may be considered as well acquainted with him." I think this is quite true, and gaining the acquaintance was genuinely rewarding. It was also a pleasure to run across so many of Johnson's bon mots in their original setting. Despite being such a massive book, or perhaps because of it, this was a truly rewarding read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Gwern

    (Project Gutenberg 6-volume edition, edited by George Birkbeck Norman Hill; 7.3MB or ~1,200,000 words, which included Boswell's account of the Hebrides but also a decent chunk of the whole was footnotes which I skipped or indices or other such incidentals. This was a major reading project which took easily a month.) It's a curious book. Samuel Johnson's dictionary was influential but totally obsoleted by the OED a century or two ago; his literature is little-read these days, and from what one rea (Project Gutenberg 6-volume edition, edited by George Birkbeck Norman Hill; 7.3MB or ~1,200,000 words, which included Boswell's account of the Hebrides but also a decent chunk of the whole was footnotes which I skipped or indices or other such incidentals. This was a major reading project which took easily a month.) It's a curious book. Samuel Johnson's dictionary was influential but totally obsoleted by the OED a century or two ago; his literature is little-read these days, and from what one reads in it, one has little desire to read any of it. (In fact, I think I would pay good money to not read any of his inscriptions, dedications, or verse ever again; and I have little interest in reading his plays, although The Rambler sounds like it may be worth reading.) Still, we are all familiar with lines drawn from it, and it's been called the greatest biography in English, and there's no time like the present to read a classic. The book is a complete mess, covering little of Johnson while young and too much while he was old, with Boswell throwing in, apparently willy-nilly, random letters utterly devoid of interest, anecdotes without context, sayings, etc. I felt that I was reading randomly shuffled notes towards a biography than a biography. This mess does help create a vivid impression of the London milieu of mail twice a day, anonymous reviews and essays everywhere, books routinely ghostwritten, riots on the streets, supercilious nobility playing their games, foreigners constantly coming and going, the Scottish turmoil not far behind & not forgotten, but that could have been done more compactly or by the rest. Johnson himself is a mixed bag: the famous quotations and quips which made him immortal in the English language are there, but so are much of less value; we like the Johnson who debunks witchcraft and correctly employs "explaining away" on a claim that "Ainnit"="Anaitis", not the Johnson who shuts off his mind and argues in all seriousness that Christianity must be true because so many people believe it or simply failing to respond to an argument & coercing the freethinker into silence; we like the Johnson making acerbic comments about politicians, not the Johnson accepting a pension from the government after writing pamphlets supporting it in bad causes and who defends at every turn the English social hierarchy & his social superiors who were in no way his superior; the Johnson praising the merits of Goldstone, not the Johnson who mocks David Hume & Adam Smith at every turn (having somehow failed to recognize two of the greatest thinkers of the age); the Johnson accurately noting details of chemistry or manufacture, not the Johnson who gives transparently fallacious economic arguments like arguing trade will decrease & land rents will increase (which could not have been more wrong) or that copyrights should be maximal; the quotable Johnson of brevity and wit, not the Johnson of bombast; the Johnson who divined the worthlessness of Ossian, not the Johnson of mindless obscurantist reverence for writing in Greek or Latin or forcing some absurd classical reference; the Johnson of The Rambler and "Meditation Upon a Pudding", not the edited Shakespeare (was that really a good investment of years? he must have known perfectly well someone else would have come along). Still, among all the downsides and all the puffery like letters and editorializing by Boswell apparently intended to boast about his & Johnson's social connections and the embarrassed fumbling and excuses for things like the pension (Boswell's initial defense is rather undercut by later comments that the government had expected him to write pamphlets for them, and he did), there's a lot I liked and which did go beyond the parts which are famous. Reading through my excerpts, I particularly liked the story about George Berkeley being fined by his university (why? to pay for the windows he would break. why would he do that? well, it's student tradition!); Johnson's quip about the halo & horns effects; noting that physicians should be sent overseas to look for new breakthroughs like cinchona bark; his argument from silence about Ossian; numeracy in how many people dine in a house in a year or take opera singers as mistresses; the suicidee who ate buttered muffins first; Boswell tricking Johnson into dinner with Wilkes; Johnson's conversation with the circumnavigators; the mystery of Johnson's oranges; one of those interesting notes which reminds one how historically recent 'silent reading' is despite its universality now or how 'giving the wall' (with its connection to street violence) slowly transitioned to the modern rule that everyone walks on the right-hand side; and Johnson's rebuke of Chesterfield. Overall, while it's nice to have notched that book on my belt, I don't feel it was worth the time to read the full 6-volume edition. If a ruthless editor were to take it and cut out the countless letters, the social posturing by Boswell, the poorer stories, and produce a 1-volume edition, it would be a much more rewarding read.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    I put this down around page 600 because I didn't think I had the time or attention to devote to all 1200 pages. That said, it's not arduous reading. Exceedingly pleasant, in fact. Richard Howard, in a poem somewhere, referred to the 'glossy carapace' of 18th century diction; Boswell, on his own and aided by copious extracts from Johnson and others, forms a treasure chest of elegantly turned utterance.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ellie

    Actually, I dip in and out of this one (over 30 years!) and I find it delightful & very funny. Actually, I dip in and out of this one (over 30 years!) and I find it delightful & very funny.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Brad

    The best way to read Boswell's Life of Johnson is this way: via a somewhat cheesy, "classic library" volume of a Great Classics type of series. The book looks like one of those books you would find in the movie set of a lawyer's office, trying to look distinguished and old, although it feels plasticy. We learn from other sources (outside of Boswell) that Boswell himself was something of an annoying 18th century star f__ker, but thank God he was - because reading this book is like being a part of The best way to read Boswell's Life of Johnson is this way: via a somewhat cheesy, "classic library" volume of a Great Classics type of series. The book looks like one of those books you would find in the movie set of a lawyer's office, trying to look distinguished and old, although it feels plasticy. We learn from other sources (outside of Boswell) that Boswell himself was something of an annoying 18th century star f__ker, but thank God he was - because reading this book is like being a part of a hundred dinner and parlour conversations with the wits and men of power in 18th century England. Funny bastards some of them were, too. Skill in the art of conversation was the most highly prized talent, and Johnson was considered king of them all. This is a world steeped in The Classics, post Renaissance but pre Industrial/Scientific Revolution - that sweet spot where men were expected to venture to come up with a theory and interpretation about anything: how to talk, the way to cook a meal, where to travel, you name it. And Johnson always had an interesting and strong Theory of Anything. Somehow it seems like nobody worked, they were just able to go to each other's houses, eat too much, drink hard, and talk smack about each other full time. Good times. Today, Johnson would be considered a blowhard; narrow minded, reactionary, pompous, and egotistical. But that's why he's actually interesting. This was a cool era because you would address your best friend as "Sir". Ironically, Boswell's writing holds up better than Johnson's himself, but who cares about that history of literature crap. If each book had a smell, this book would smell like really good roast beef, with some hard licks thrown in. Sir, I am, Your most humble reviewer, &tc &tc

  12. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Boswell’s Life of Johnson is one of the most famous biographies in the English language. Its subject is one of the most celebrated English men of letters. But oddly, a reader of this lengthy encomium might come away wondering exactly why Johnson is so celebrated. In fact, it is a stretch to call this a biography at all. It does not paint a complete portrait of Johnson by any means. It does little to explicate his works or put them in the context of his life. What it does, is provide long successi Boswell’s Life of Johnson is one of the most famous biographies in the English language. Its subject is one of the most celebrated English men of letters. But oddly, a reader of this lengthy encomium might come away wondering exactly why Johnson is so celebrated. In fact, it is a stretch to call this a biography at all. It does not paint a complete portrait of Johnson by any means. It does little to explicate his works or put them in the context of his life. What it does, is provide long succession of anecdotes of Boswell’s personal interactions and experiences with Johnson. These, apart from a brief trip the two made to Scotland together, seem to consist mainly of dinner parties, tea time and long nights before the fire with a bottle of port. Even the famous Literary Club which Johnson presided over is given relatively short shrift. Boswell first met Johnson in 1763, when Johnson was already 54 and years after his defining work, the Dictionary, was published and his reputation established. Boswell does zoom through a (cursory) summary of Johnson’s life to the point of their meeting, but the bulk of this book is devoted to detailing conversations, both private ones between Boswell and Johnson alone, and ones that took place among Johnson and his illustrious circle of acquaintances. And this detail does establish Johnson as master of the epigram and quick-witted riposte. It also establishes him as a formidable adversary in debate (Goldsmith said of him, “There is no arguing with Johnson: for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.”), as condescending, opinionated and overbearing. He was rigidly Anglican, rigidly Tory, rigidly prejudiced (not least against the Scots, Boswell’s own nationality). He rarely left England – but after all, London was the center of the universe (“when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." (Sounds like something Andi would say about New York!)). He hated the Americans (“…order cannot be had but by subordination.”). In short, Johnson comes across as a not very sympathetic character. But somehow he was a hot ticket in London’s intellectual and social circles, never seeming to be without a dinner invitation or the opportunity to pass a few weeks at someone’s estate in the country. His Literary Club boasted a membership that makes Ben Franklin’s Junto seem bush league: Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Joshua Reynolds, to name just the ones I’ve heard of. And Boswell’s affection for him is boundless, despite all the wisecracks about the Scots. Oh yes, he loved his wife (who Boswell never met) and he loved his cat, Hodge. And though it might have been uncomfortable for a lesser man to engage Johnson in conversation, it is entertaining from the safe distance of two and a quarter centuries to read about his domination of the drawing room. (It’s fun to imagine what an evening with him and Oscar Wilde might have been like.) But to assess Johnson’s place in the literary history of the English speaking world, Boswell’s Life won’t do.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Aitken

    This is a great book about a great man, albeit not written by a great man.  I started reading this in 2016, I think.  C. S. Lewis recommends approaching it as “lunch literature.”  This does not mean it is light reading, however.  It is conversational reading, but in these conversations Johnson reveals a remarkable dexterity of mind. There are several key events in Johnson’s life. One key event is the publishing of his Dictionary.  Age 46: Published the Dictionary.  Received MA in 1755. Another tu This is a great book about a great man, albeit not written by a great man.  I started reading this in 2016, I think.  C. S. Lewis recommends approaching it as “lunch literature.”  This does not mean it is light reading, however.  It is conversational reading, but in these conversations Johnson reveals a remarkable dexterity of mind. There are several key events in Johnson’s life. One key event is the publishing of his Dictionary.  Age 46: Published the Dictionary.  Received MA in 1755. Another turning point is the death of Johnson’s wife. The model is the gentleman-scholar shaped by Tory ideals. The model is the “pious Tory.” “Tories are Whigs when out of place, and Whigs, Tories when in place: (Boswell 93).  Johnson was a devout Anglican who held to Tory principles, though the latter were not held irrationally. Johnson was not afraid of Deists and skeptics.  He knew he was their superior and this allowed him to approach the debate with calm and mastery.  He understood that Boswell had doubts but Johnson didn’t immediately crush them. He took Boswell by the hand and guided him. Sometimes he is even funny.  Boswell tells of the amusing story of when Johnson discussed Toryism with the niece of a friend: One day when dining at old Mr. Langton's, where Miss Roberts, his niece, was one of the company, Johnson, with his usual complacent attention to the fair sex, took her by the hand and said, “My dear, I hope you are a Jacobite.” Old Mr. Langton, who, though a high and steady Tory, was attached to the present Royal Family, seemed offended, and asked Johnson, with great warmth, what he could mean by putting such a question to his niece! “Why, Sir, (said Johnson) I meant no offence to your niece, I meant her a great compliment. A Jacobite, Sir, believes in the divine right of Kings. He that believes in the divine right of Kings believes in a Divinity. A Jacobite believes in the divine right of Bishops. He that believes in the divine right of Bishops believes in the divine authority of the Christian religion. Therefore, Sir, a Jacobite is neither an Atheist nor a Deist. That cannot be said of a Whig; for Whiggism is a negation of all principle” (305). Furthermore, Toriness is a manliness of spirit. Johnson writes concerning a late bishop who deserves Johnson’s support: “and [it will] increase that fervour of Loyalty, which in me, who boast of the name TORY, is not only a principle, but a passion” (804). Johnson warns of the propensity towards lawsuits and debts.  “Of lawsuits there is no end ...I am more afraid of the debts than the House of Lords. It is scarcely imagined what debts will swell, that are daily increasing by small additions, and how carelessly in a state of desperation debts are contracted” (817). The three moments are “Johnson before marriage,” Johnson after his wife’s death, and Johnson’s companionship with Boswell.   Johnson is one of those heroic individuals.  Johnson was firm yet gentle with Boswell.  He helped Boswell work through his doubts. The skeptics weren’t to be feared.  Johnson wasn’t impressed with Hume.  Any objection Hume had to the faith, Johnson had already worked through when he was young.  He writes, “Truth, sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull” (314). Boswell wants us to note that Johnson was “manly.”  Not in a cheap bravado sense, but he was direct, firm, yet polite.  A telling scene was when His Majesty paid a surprise visit to Johnson: “During the whole of this interview, Johnson talked to his Majesty with profound respect, but still in his firm manly manner, with a sonorous voice and never in that subdued tone which ...is commonly used in the drawing room” (384). Around age 66 for Johnson the American colonies were beginning to rebel.  Interestingly, Boswell refers to the Bostonians as a “race” (575). We should imitate Johnson both in word and deed. Johnson believed--correctly--in a natural hierarchy of mankind.  He opposed the “Leveller” doctrine (quasi-Anabaptists). Johnson also (correctly) opposed Rousseau.  Boswell: "Do you really think him [Rousseau] a bad man?" Johnson: "Sir, if you are talking jestingly of this, I don't talk with you. If you mean to be serious, I think him one of the worst of men; a rascal, who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been. Three or four nations have expelled him: and it is a shame that he is protected in this country." Boswell: "I don't deny, Sir, but that his novel may, perhaps, do harm; but I cannot think his intention was bad." Johnson: "Sir, that will not do. We cannot prove any man's intention to be bad. You may shoot a man through the head, and say you intended to miss him; but the Judge will order you to be hanged. An alleged want of intention, when evil is committed, will not be allowed in a court of justice. Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation, than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have him work in the plantations."

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Miller

    I really wasn't expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. Just one of those classics I hadn't got around to. I really like how Boswell chronicles Johnson's life detailing the positive and the negative. Boswell is so in awe of his friend but does not shade his flaws. Making you wish you had known and interacted with him yourself.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mishka

    i've read half this book so far and, as with all terribly good, terribly long books that you don't rush through in one go, it's comforting to know that it's at home waiting for me. i'm looking forward to when i can open it up where i left off when life wasn't quite as crazy as it is now and continue giggling at boswell's madness. although the book is titled 'the life of samuel johnson', i am going to need to get a proper biography of the great doctor because i am completely distracted by boswell i've read half this book so far and, as with all terribly good, terribly long books that you don't rush through in one go, it's comforting to know that it's at home waiting for me. i'm looking forward to when i can open it up where i left off when life wasn't quite as crazy as it is now and continue giggling at boswell's madness. although the book is titled 'the life of samuel johnson', i am going to need to get a proper biography of the great doctor because i am completely distracted by boswell in this one and can't seem to make myself care about johnson. boswell pushes himself into the narrative at every opportunity and then tells us he's not doing it to draw attention to himself but simply to show off some particular aspect of dr. johnson - kind of like kahn's son in "my architect". johnson ends up coming off a pale fire to boswell bright sun. (sorry i couldn't help myself from writing that last sentence). I decided to buy the book after losing my heart and mind to vladmir nabokov's pale fire which uses a quote from this book as it's epigram.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Will Miller

    Full of falsities. And it has probably done as much harm as good to our understanding of its remarkable subject. Still, it's very difficult not to love this book. What a hoot. Enjoy yourself - it's difficult not to. And take your time. But don't for a minute fool yourself into thinking this book is about Samuel Johnson.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Valerie Kyriosity

    Dr. Johnson is a new old friend. I loved Boswell's love for him, which was genuine through and through, even when confronting his faults. Johnson knew everybody and thought about everything. Much of his thinking was on target, but some was wide of the mark. All of it came from a remarkably capable mind and was expressed with a rhetorical skill that has had few equals. His piety was strong and genuine. Sadly, one of his errors was a conviction that we cannot be assured of our salvation, so he was Dr. Johnson is a new old friend. I loved Boswell's love for him, which was genuine through and through, even when confronting his faults. Johnson knew everybody and thought about everything. Much of his thinking was on target, but some was wide of the mark. All of it came from a remarkably capable mind and was expressed with a rhetorical skill that has had few equals. His piety was strong and genuine. Sadly, one of his errors was a conviction that we cannot be assured of our salvation, so he was plagued with doubt and fear of death. He was odd and awkward (someone in my book group suggested autism, but on further reflection, I don't think his quirks quite fit that diagnosis), but that makes me like him even more, not exactly being possessed of the full measure of social graces myself. There were a few dull stretches, but for the most part, I stayed eagerly engaged throughout the fifty-one-hour audiobook. I'd likely not have made it through in text. I'd place David Timson's reading in my top ten audiobook performances...probably in the top five...possibly in the top three. The sheer stamina of narrating over fifty hours of text plus the befitting and consistent characterizations plus the fluent pronunciation and intonation of not only English but also Latin and French added up to a performance worthy of a long standing ovation and several curtain calls. He smacked my gob, and if I had another gob, I'd happily turn it to have him smack that, too. I hunted up a couple videos of his rare onscreen performances, both small parts, and they weren't such as I'd ever remember. He's truly found his niche in the audiobook world, and I am grateful for it.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Edward

    Reading this book was like spending time talking to a good friend who is curious, interested in new ideas, gives odd twists to old ones, is original in his thoughts, a person you look forward to seeing. The book is loosely organized chronologically so I read it over a period of months, a few pages at a time – no problem of forgetting what I had read as every entry is on a new topic. To read more than that would be overloading your mind, and in fact on a few occasions Boswell complains of that, c Reading this book was like spending time talking to a good friend who is curious, interested in new ideas, gives odd twists to old ones, is original in his thoughts, a person you look forward to seeing. The book is loosely organized chronologically so I read it over a period of months, a few pages at a time – no problem of forgetting what I had read as every entry is on a new topic. To read more than that would be overloading your mind, and in fact on a few occasions Boswell complains of that, commenting that Johnson talked so much and so well about so many things that he couldn’t remember all of what worth writing down. Johnson was not always easy to be around – he could be cranky, disputatious, arrogant, a pain-in-the-ass at times, and he would no doubt today be diagnosed as a depressive, based on comments like this one by Boswell; "The great business of his life (he said) was to escape from himself; this disposition he considered as the disease of his mind, which nothing cured but company." But at the same time he could be generous, forgiving, downright humble, and could on occasion even laugh at himself. Boswell met Johnson when he was 22 and Johnson was 53 and to read the book, you’d think Boswell was Johnson’s shadow. In fact, I read that he spent relatively little time with Johnson and that a lot of his material came from secondary sources such as letters, Johnson’s writings, and reports of others who knew him. But whether Boswell, consciously or not, was creating a mythical Johnson is for me beside the point. I just found the “biography” wonderfully entertaining. Johnson could say more in a sentence than most people in a paragraph. A few very brief samplings of THE LIFE: "Johnson was much attached to London: he observed, that a man sorted his mind better there than anywhere else; and that in remote situations a man's body might be feasted, but his mind was starved and his faculties apt to degenerate from want of exercise and competition." Johnson was a urban creature to the core – he needed the city to stimulate his imagination. "I am willing to love all mankind, EXCEPT AN AMERICAN, and his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he 'breathed out threatenings and slaughter', calling them Rascals - Robbers - Pirates, and vowing he'd burn and destroy them". Johnson was deeply conservative and saw the American Revolution as a dangerous overturning of a natural order. As for “burning Americans”, had he lived another 30 years (he died in l784 at the age of 75), he would have been satisfied at seeing the British burn Washington in the War of 1812. "I mentioned politics. Johnson said, 'You may well ask if I hanged myself today. Sir, I'd as soon have a man to break my bones as talk to me of public affairs, internal or external. I have lived to see things all as bad as they can be" Take heart, readers whose presidential candidate has been defeated, Johnson felt the depths of political despair as well. The best way I can think of to conclude is to quote Boswell and Johnson on how to read a book, particularly this one: “No, Sir, do YOU read books through?” asked Johnson. His way is probably the best one of undertaking this book. Open at random, read here and there, forward and back, wholly according to inclination; follow the practice of Johnson and all good readers of ‘tearing the heart” out of it. In this way you most readily come within the reach of its charm and power. Then, not content witih a part, seek the unabridged whole, and gow into the infinite possibilities of it.”

  19. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    The second volume of Boswell's life of Samuel Johnson portrays Johnson as a man who, although growing older, retains extraordinary vitality. In fact, Johnson by this point has ceased to write so much and begun to talk even more, always demonstrating a rapier-like personality, not full of opinions so much as reasoned judgments, never making a statement without quickly backing it up with one, two, or more justifications. The Johnson here strikes me as almost Falstaffian, not in the bawdy sense, but The second volume of Boswell's life of Samuel Johnson portrays Johnson as a man who, although growing older, retains extraordinary vitality. In fact, Johnson by this point has ceased to write so much and begun to talk even more, always demonstrating a rapier-like personality, not full of opinions so much as reasoned judgments, never making a statement without quickly backing it up with one, two, or more justifications. The Johnson here strikes me as almost Falstaffian, not in the bawdy sense, but in the sense of pressing volubility, self-assurance, and all the color of a peacock's tail. In some ways, he already seems dated by virtue of his obstinate Toryism. Could any king have ever merited such allegiance? It's difficult to think of one. By the same token, it's difficult for me, at least, to concur in Johnson's confidence that men of property are better equipped to make judgments about national issues than men of the street (or women, for whom Johnson has great regard but not much respect). One of the central issues addressed in this volume is Johnson's trip to the Hebrides with Boswell, which provided him at the same time with a broader perspective on Scotland. Johnson comes to terms with the Scots quite well, but it's clear that the English and Scottish had low opinions of one another in the 18th century, something that seems to remain alive today as the Scots head toward a referendum next September on independence, perhaps leaving "the United Kingdom" to consist, essentially, of just England and Wales. Courtous though he was to his Scottish hosts, Johnson was fearless in declaring the infamous "Ossian" epic a fraud. He wasn't taken in by James Macpherson's discovery of manuscripts written at a time in the Scottish past when no manuscripts of any other type were found to have existed. How could this be then? Johnson asked. Answer: it couldn't. This is an episodic book, undoubtedly accurate in its reportage, but lacking, as Johnson himself might say, in judgment. From time to time Boswell falls afoul of Johnson or states his disagreements with Johnson's views, but he doesn't synthesize or analyze much, leaving the reader to imagine what impression Johnson really made on his contemporaries rather than offering the reader a conclusion or two about this superabundent human being. The dark side of Johnson is mentioned almost in passing. He was a depressive who like most depressives withdrew when he felt worst. This probably explains best why Boswell has little to offer on the subject: he wasn't with Johnson when Johnson spiraled downward, he didn't have access to those black thoughts that make you your own worst enemy. I'm probably saying, then, that Johnson was man of Shakespearian proportions without a Shakespeare near at hand to intuit his fundamental inner workings. The sparks that fly here all the time are social and conversational in nature; they don't come in the form of soliloquies, and they don't come in the form of his equals commenting on him. This isn't a pity, though. Johnson presented by Boswell and Johnson presented by himself in his own writing is quite enough. He was his own pagaent, blunt, observant, learned, witty, tough-minded and somewhat old-fashioned in the way he clung to conservativism and tradition when confronted with matters that reason alone could not resolve. That's why, of course, the age that followed the Age of Johnson was the Romantic Age, a turn within from which we have not yet fully emerged.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rozzer

    Eclipse first, the rest nowhere. Yes, people, this is it. The BEST biography ever written anywhere in any language. You may not previously have made the acquaintance of Jamie or the good Doctor, but after having read this incredible work they will be your friends for life. It's true. Eighteenth Century London is long ago and, for most of us, far away. Few of us have ever known men to wear knee-pants and tricorne hats as these did, or even seen the huge, thirty-yard dress productions that the lad Eclipse first, the rest nowhere. Yes, people, this is it. The BEST biography ever written anywhere in any language. You may not previously have made the acquaintance of Jamie or the good Doctor, but after having read this incredible work they will be your friends for life. It's true. Eighteenth Century London is long ago and, for most of us, far away. Few of us have ever known men to wear knee-pants and tricorne hats as these did, or even seen the huge, thirty-yard dress productions that the ladies then wore. But you've met Boswell and Johnson before, though not in the guise of real persons. This is the intimate, real history of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, of Pickwick and Sam Weller, of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But though historical rather than fictional, Jamie and the Doctor are just as irrepressibly individual, as impossible to imitate, as any of the famous fictional pairs whom you may have read about and loved. Nor will their conversations (assiduously and immediately written down by Boswell after the fact) have anything in common with any others of which you've read or in which you've participated. Johnson was a strange genius. Boswell was an endearingly individual common man. One has to assume that the foundation of the entire work was Boswell's "father fixation" on Johnson, Boswell's real father (the 8th Laird of Auchinleck) being cold, distant and unsatisfactory to Boswell. Without Boswell's having become entranced with Johnson we wouldn't have this wonderful work. But you have to read it to appreciate it. No summary or comment can in any way do it justice.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ron

    Boswell's Life of Johnson is one of those books which learned people are told to read but few seldom do. Because of its availability through Project Guthenberg, I undertook to amend that deficiency in my own instance. (Okay, I give up, I can't think that way, let alone write it.) Frankly, I almost quit due to both the antique style and Boswell's gushing hero worship, however I eventually got a feel for both and plunged on. It was worth it. Johnson was probably not an easy man to know. He certainl Boswell's Life of Johnson is one of those books which learned people are told to read but few seldom do. Because of its availability through Project Guthenberg, I undertook to amend that deficiency in my own instance. (Okay, I give up, I can't think that way, let alone write it.) Frankly, I almost quit due to both the antique style and Boswell's gushing hero worship, however I eventually got a feel for both and plunged on. It was worth it. Johnson was probably not an easy man to know. He certainly had rough edges, but the man sure could turn a phrase. He loved verbal jousting, and Boswell seemed content to be his foil, even to the point of offering his hide for his mentor to flail. There's wisdom here, but even more there's a very human--if larger than life--man living and dying like a man. A good read.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Roger

    Reading Boswell's Life of Johnson is something I've long aspired to do, and now that I'm retired, I took the time to wade through it. I learned a great deal about the 18th century from Johnson (through Boswell), including fascinating insights into John Wesley, George Whitefield, and the Methodists, from Boswell's point of view. Worth a reading, if that century is of interest to you.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lazarus P Badpenny Esq

    Perhaps there is no greater indication of encroaching dotage than the excitement I feel towards the prospect of devouring Boswell's Life of Johnson.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kiof

    The ultimate non-fiction book. Just plain great. For me, this is beach-reading.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Liedzeit

    This is a very famous book. And quite a good one. But I am mighty glad that I read an abbridged edition. It is, as everyone knows not really a biography. More a collection of witticisms. And there really are a lot. But you do have to find them. So reading this is a bit like reading pornography, you hunt for the juicy parts. It is all there, the refutation of Berkeley, patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel, hell that is paved with good intentions, that no man is obliged to do what he can This is a very famous book. And quite a good one. But I am mighty glad that I read an abbridged edition. It is, as everyone knows not really a biography. More a collection of witticisms. And there really are a lot. But you do have to find them. So reading this is a bit like reading pornography, you hunt for the juicy parts. It is all there, the refutation of Berkeley, patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel, hell that is paved with good intentions, that no man is obliged to do what he can do, how a preaching woman resembles a dog on two feet (not a pretty sight but one is surprised that it is possible). And so on. I did not find the being tired of London wisdom. (And it is not really very deep or funny, except on T-Shirts.) My Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations from 1948 has 9 pages of Johnson, about half from Boswell’s Life. Not bad, not in a league with Shakespeare (73) but compared to Shaw (2) and Wilde (3) not bad at all. (By the way, I would love to see the Obscure Quotations companion volume.) So the question is, why not read just Bartlett? Because it is a pleasure to find him say things that are not as well known. Such as that he knew almost as much with 18 as at present (being 54). Or his defense of the inquisition. Or when he says that he wants to see the Chinese Wall, and when Boswell agrees but says he has to take care of his kids, he says that having kids is all the more reason to go and see the Wall. As opposed to the other famous witticism: It is worth seeing but not worth going to see. "Many things which are false are transmitted from book to book, and gain credit in the world. One of these is the cry against evil and luxury." - "All intellectual impoval arises from leisure; all leisure arises from one working for another." And my favorite: "Common people do not accurately adapt their thoughts to the objects; nor, secondly, do they accurately adapt their words to their thoughts: they do not mean to lie; but, taking no pains to be exact, they give you very false accounts. A great part of their language is proverbial. If anything rocks at all, they say it rocks like a cradle and in this they go on." And especially for us Goodreaders: "A young man should read five hours in a day, and so may acquire a great deal of knowledge." And: "No man except a blockhead ever wrote except for money." (I do feel quite silly.) The best quotation though is not by Johnson at all but by Oliver Edwards: "I have tried in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in." (I detest the sentiment, but like it anyway.)

  26. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Finished: 02.09.2018 Genre: biography Rating: B- #ccbookreviews Conclusion: "Dictionaries are like watches. The worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true" #Classic.....but a very long read! Review Finished: 02.09.2018 Genre: biography Rating: B- #ccbookreviews Conclusion: "Dictionaries are like watches. The worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true" #Classic.....but a very long read! Review

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lisa (Harmonybites)

    This is an abridgment of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which as it is runs to over 500 pages. I am glad I read it, but I’m also glad I read an abridgment (an ebook downloaded for free from The Gutenberg Project). In the preface the editor tells us he “omitted most of Boswell’s criticisms, comments, and notes, all of Johnson’s opinions in legal cases, most of the letters, and parts of the conversation dealing with matters which were of greater importance in Boswell’s day than now.” I don’t kn This is an abridgment of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which as it is runs to over 500 pages. I am glad I read it, but I’m also glad I read an abridgment (an ebook downloaded for free from The Gutenberg Project). In the preface the editor tells us he “omitted most of Boswell’s criticisms, comments, and notes, all of Johnson’s opinions in legal cases, most of the letters, and parts of the conversation dealing with matters which were of greater importance in Boswell’s day than now.” I don’t know I’d have been able to endure the full text--at least first time around. The book grew on me. Johnson was famous as a literary critic (particularly of Shakespeare) and for his assembly of A Dictionary of the English Language. Boswell’s biography of the man has been described as “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.” I decided to read it because its one of the works in Good Reading’s “100 Significant Books” and I found it practically a college education by itself reading the books on that list. I did find it enormously entertaining. Johnson is known for his wit, which is good because Boswell in his narrative initially struck me as singularly humorless--and far too adoring. At one point Boswell admits he “cannot help worshipping” Johnson. And although I in the end I found him rather endearing, at first it was hard for me to find much to adore in Johnson, who seemed through much of this to be such a sanctimonious, misogynist prig. Mind you, Boswell does warn that Johnson loved to be contrary, play devil’s advocate, so it can be hard at times to know what should be taken seriously. Nevertheless, a lot of Johnson’s views, his love of rank and monarchy, with everyone keeping their place, his contempt for democracy, was pretty consistent. I could put it down to the times, were I not aware that after all this is a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin. As an American, Johnson makes me glad we separated from the Mother Country. He was a devout Anglican and Tory and after reading his views I can have no doubt in his place and time I’d be a Whig, his bete noir. For example: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.” And: I asked him if it was not hard that one deviation from chastity should so absolutely ruin a young woman. Johnson. "Why no, Sir; it is the great principle which she is taught. When she has given up that principle, she has given up every notion of female honour and virtue, which are all included in chastity. And: He thought portrait-painting an improper employment for a woman. “Publick practice of any art... and staring in men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female.” (He also believed a husband would be disgraced by allowing his wife to sing publicly for hire.) And: [Johnson] had long indulged most unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-subjects in America. For as early as 1769... he had said of them, “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and out to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging. (Johnson wrote a pamphlet attacking the American patriots: Taxation No Tyranny.) At the same time there were lines that made me smile, or that I did find wise. For instance, Johnson, that compiler of a dictionary, put in this definition of a Lexicographer: “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” And I was taken with these two passages: After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it THUS." And: To my question, whether we might not fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered, in a passion, No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.” He added (with an earnest look,) 'A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.’ And there are so many sayings I’d heard of that I found could be traced to this biography--about second marriages: “the triumph of hope over experience.” “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” “Hell is paved with good intentions.” “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” And this paints not just a picture of Johnson, but his times and contemporaries and companions: Oliver Goldsmith, the writer, David Garrick the actor, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter, politician Edmund Burke, in particular, but mentions of historians Edward Gibbons and Mrs Macaulay, novelists Richardson and Fielding and Fanny Burney and Richard Sheridan the playwright--even King George III. I don’t know that I can say I closed the book loving Samuel Johnson--but I did wind up loving Boswell’s biography of him.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Alan Lindsay

    This is a book I've had on my list for thirty years and always balked at because it seemed to be a hodge-podge of a biography, all the material for a biography thrown together and hardly edited at all. How can an unedited life be compelling? Turns out it IS compelling precisely because it is such a slightly ordered regurgitation of whatever Boswell had at hand. Listen to Johnson discourse on everything that mattered to him, everything that mattered in the age--Slavery, America, Salvation, fear o This is a book I've had on my list for thirty years and always balked at because it seemed to be a hodge-podge of a biography, all the material for a biography thrown together and hardly edited at all. How can an unedited life be compelling? Turns out it IS compelling precisely because it is such a slightly ordered regurgitation of whatever Boswell had at hand. Listen to Johnson discourse on everything that mattered to him, everything that mattered in the age--Slavery, America, Salvation, fear of death, law, Toryism, Whiggism, Scotland, Travel, London, reading, writing, women, children, pets--and listen to Boswell gush over Johnson's soaring intellect, which is full of wisdom and full of prejudice. It's an amazing book. And the organization, which is the most unpromising imaginanable, which is chronological, allows you to truly follow a man as he moves from youth and poverty to become an institution, to old age and death. I feel as though I'm visiting with Johnson not reading a book on him, and visiting the 18th century. It's the closest thing to time travel I've ever experienced.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Atte

    "why sir, do you read books through?" &c. "why sir, do you read books through?" &c.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Charles

    Here is an experiment in book reviewing. I can't add anything to the mass of opinion about Johnson. So al alternative: 1971-1972 Me and Samuel Johnson In 1971, a division. The basics are in place, grown-up life is beginning. The ways of knowing are established (in 1971 I was still waiting on history) and their associated modes of production - how to write, compose, do philosophy are known in a preliminary fashion. The period of euphoric, youthful discovery is over: nine important authors in about Here is an experiment in book reviewing. I can't add anything to the mass of opinion about Johnson. So al alternative: 1971-1972 Me and Samuel Johnson In 1971, a division. The basics are in place, grown-up life is beginning. The ways of knowing are established (in 1971 I was still waiting on history) and their associated modes of production - how to write, compose, do philosophy are known in a preliminary fashion. The period of euphoric, youthful discovery is over: nine important authors in about twelve years. There will be only nine more in the next thirty. A division, then. With Johnson was added the new element of Last Things. Last Things are what you begin to think about once the fruit of knowledge starts to ferment on your stomach. Boswell's life of Johnson was the first used book I bought. (Rare books continue to be largely beyond me.) I don't remember where the motivation to read Boswell came from, but by triangulating the Berkeley book shops I found a nice copy of the Heritage edition with the annotations by Mrs. Thrale, three crisp slip-cased volumes for $24, the most expensive book I'd bought to date. I had to think about it for a week. (Only a couple of years later Gravity's Rainbow was published at $15, about twice what novels usually sold for, and it would be twenty years before I was again as well off as I was selling hardware in San Francisco.) It wasn't long before I’d read more about Johnson than anyone, until a met a couple of Johnson scholars. I think Bulwer's Pelham must have been at that time the earliest English text that I liked at all excepting some of Shakespeare and Chaucer. In graduate school they couldn't even get me to read Dostoevsky. I've been working my way backwards since, but I don't think I'll make it to Smollett in time. And there's my professional interest in the dictionary of course, as well as Johnson's role in the transformation of the economic basis of authorship. When I discovered Orestes Brownson (while vainly looking up my own name in the University of Oregon card catalog) I thought it was so queer that a man would write a whole periodical all by himself. I suppose I must not have known about The Tatler and The Spectator and I'm sure I hadn't paid any attention to Johnson before 1971. How is it possible for someone to be so badly taught? More importantly, how is it possible for someone to pass the GRE with this kind of ignorance? I was lucky to get 78 questions on Swinburne and not Smollett. Swinburne I'd heard of, God knows why. None of that is the real thing. You have to realize that before I was forty I'd only read two books more than once, other than the Bible and some Donald Duck comic books, the only movie I ever saw again was some James Coburn thing because we got in late and missed the first ten minutes, and twice though an unfamiliar classical piece was pretty well max. Now, in the person of Samuel Johnson, through the medium of James Bowell, I discovered Death. This was not as yet a really black thing, more of a soft buttery chocolate color, kind of an indulgence. But I grasped Johnson's fear. His grinding desires and frustrations were real to me in a way not encountered before, probably because I had up to that time operated on a pretty simple hypothesis of them that wants, gets. Johnson's dignity under the weight of all his fears and liabilities revealed to me someone who has seen the worst and accepted it. Not got beyond it. Johnson appears to have medicated himself by translating from Greek into Latin, though Boswell mentions "remedies" which everyone experimented with in those days. But Johnson's primary source of strength, his recourse, was his character. Here was a man to emulate. Plenty of authors and artists deal in Last Things. Penderecki's horrifying Auschwitz memorial for example. Or Mahler, whose Kindertotenleider but more especially the fourth movement of the fifth symphony when the bass viols sink back to the tonic after the last wave of anguish has washed over me. That's not it. It's not just the regret or the bitterness or the loneliness (or more existentially, abandonment) or whatever. It's the relationship of the artist to Last Things that counts here: the resolve to face the whirlwind. And be blown away if necessary. I notice that in the student lounge they all play Beethoven. It must attract women (only guys play that piano). Why is that?

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