From Publishers Weekly
For the 250th anniversary of Dr. Samuel Johnson's most famous achievement, Hitchings's charming philology-as-biography shows Johnson to be no mere compiler of words but, as he himself put it, "a writer of dictionaries." Authoritative dictionaries for French and Italian were compiled by official academies, but English's first proper dictionary fell to a university dropout and failed provincial schoolmaster turned Grub Street hack—long before he became the Great Cham. The work began as a purely commercial venture at the suggestion of a bookseller-publisher, Johnson labored under less than ideal conditions, assisted only by a group of eclectic and eccentric amanuenses, and burdened by his wife's declining health and his own melancholia. In the end, his four-volume, 20-pound opus defined more than 42,773 common words and technical terms from all disciplines, supported with some 110,000 quotations drawn from English literature. Besides contemporary illustrations by the great Hogarth and Reynolds, Hitchings's book reproduces sample pages of Johnson's annotated reference material and the first edition of the dictionary. Though not as sensational as the bestselling account of another dictionary, The Professor and the Madam,
British writer Hitchings's debut puts the scholarly labor in illuminating perspective along with its entirely human creator. (Oct.)
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James Boswell's biography has preserved for the ages the reputation of Samuel Johnson, but the dictionary for which Johnson was known in his own time receives little attention therein, because Boswell did not meet Johnson until 1763, eight years after the dictionary's publication. Hitchings' sprightly book about the dictionary gives a full picture of Johnson during a difficult decade of melancholy toil. More than twenty English dictionaries preceded Johnson's, but his surpassed them all, and was itself supplanted only in 1928, by the first Oxford English Dictionary-which used nearly two thousand of Johnson's definitions. In alphabetically ordered chapters given Johnson's own headwords, from "Adventurous" to "Zootomy," Hitchings details the magnitude of Johnson's labors and the achievements of the dictionary, from Johnson's "scrupulous care over shades of meaning"-defining "world," for example, in sixteen different senses-to the inclusion of a hundred thousand illustrative quotations, culled from his voracious reading.
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