Wednesday, 11 May 2011

BOSWELL’S LIFE OF JOHNSON


This is a book I have been meaning to read for some time. It’s one of those books one ought to read. So, I’ve read it. Alright, most of it. I had to give up. And I feel terribly guilty. How charming is this, from the Preface, obviously written by a much better person than me:

Loyal Johnsonians may look upon such a book (the abridged ‘Life’) with a measure of scorn. I could not have made it, had I not believed that it would be the means of drawing new readers to Boswell, and eventually of finding for them in the complete work what many have already found – days and years of growing enlightenment and happy companionship, and an innocent refuge from the cares and perturbations of life. (Princeton, June 28, 1917)

Dr Johnson’s fame rests primarily on the fact that he wrote the first English dictionary. In other countries this was apparently the work of entire institutes, not just one man, so this is no small achievement. Dr Johnson was apparently a great conversationalist, and was much admired across eighteenth century London. And by nobody was he more admired than Boswell, who set himself, after every night out, to recall Johnson’s words and set them down. On the one hand, I found this a bit bizarre and stalkerish. On the other, there's something touching, and not at all contemporary, about so unashamedly and entirely admiring someone. So we learn a lot about Johnson’s opinions. Here’s one I really feel:

When I was running about this town a very poor fellow, I was a great arguer for the advantages of poverty; but I was, at the same time, very sorry to be poor. Sir, all the arguments which are brought to represent poverty as no evil, shew it to be evidently a great evil. You never find people labouring to convince you that you may live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.

Or:

Johnson, upon all occasions, expressed his approbation of enforcing instruction by means of the rod. ‘I would rather (said he) have the rod to be the general terror to all, to make them learn, than tell a child, if you do thus, or thus, you will be more esteemed than your brothers or sisters. The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and there’s an end on’t; whereas, by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other.

I got a good way through the book, but eventually I got bored and had to give up. There were large sections that seemed obscure and eighteenth century, and I constantly felt like I was missing the point. Also, it had no shape. Like real life, it had no plot, no structure or meaning, and I don’t read books to spend more time in real life, but less.

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