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The Life of Samuel Johnson (Penguin Classics) Paperback – Abridged


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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Abridged edition (August 30, 1979)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140431160
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140431162
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 3.1 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #615,655 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

James Boswell is for some the ideal scribe, for others a sycophantic toady. Edmund Wilson memorably labeled him "a vain and pushing diarist." Boswell can even be seen as someone unconsciously intent on undermining his idol in sonorous, balanced sentences. Early on in his massive Life, he puts all manner of ideas into our heads with his boobish attempts to clear the youthful Johnson of potential impropriety: "His juvenile attachments to the fair sex were, however, very transient; and it is certain that he formed no criminal connection whatsoever." And while it's often tempting to ignore Boswell's more personal intrusions and delight solely in the melancholic master's words and deeds, there are delightful admissions as, "I was at this time so occupied, shall I call it? or so dissipated, by the amusements of London that our next meeting was not till Saturday, June 25..."

Samuel Johnson was born in 1709 and died in 1784--a long life, though one marred by depression and fear of death. On April 20, 1764, for example, he declared, "I would consent to have a limb amputated to recover my spirits." Many of the quotes Boswell includes are a sort of greatest hits: Johnson's definitions of oats and lexicographer, his love for his cat Hodge, as well as thousands of bon, and mal, mots. ("Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel"; "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.") But there are also many unfamiliar pleasures--Boswell's accounts of Johnson's literary industry, including the Dictionary, The Rambler and Lives of the Poets; Johnson's singular loathing for Scotland and France; and the surprising hints of revelry. Awakened at 3 AM by friends, he greets them with, "What, is it you, you dogs! I'll have a frisk with you." This at age 42. Johnson's final years were marked by pain and loneliness but certainly no loss of wit.


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Customer Reviews

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Bottom line, reading this book is interesting as a curiosity.
Robert S. Clay Jr.
Boswell makes it sound as if the King was completely focused on Johnson, and no one else was there - - as if it was a private audience (yet it certainly wasn't).
Frank Lynch
The Life of Samuel Johnson is the most famous biography ever written in the English language!
C. M Mills

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 11, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I liked this but prefer the unabridged edition published by Oxford University Press (in their Oxford World's Classics series). If you're willing to read Boswell, spend a few dollars more for the OUP edition.
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67 of 81 people found the following review helpful By Frank Lynch on August 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
Almost two years ago, I gave this five stars. On reading much more about Boswell and his procedures, I have to qualify my earlier review. If you want a book about Johnson that tells how one man saw him, then yes, it still merits five stars. If you want a full perspective of Johnson - - as the word biography would imply, I'd downgrade it to three stars. So on balance, four.
There are of course many positives, or I wouldn't have given it 5 stars two years ago. Boswell had a strong talent for recording Johnson's conversations, and they are wonderful. Some of them are down right hilarious! Boswell was also a bit of a dramatist, setting up situations such as Johnson's meeting with Wilkes, placing bets over whether he would challenge Johnson on his habit of hiding orange peels. And Boswell could tell a story very dramatically - - it's his dramatic skills and memory which have been the basis on which his champions have defended him.
However, as a 'biography' this leaves much to be desired. Not just the issue of scope, with some 80% of the pages being on 20 years of Johnson's life. Boswell just wasn't a biographer, his story is too personal, he inadequately integrates important opinions, and he suppresses important information that's inconsistent with his rather simple view of Johnson. As Richard Schwartz has excellently pointed out, Boswell has presented us with an unshaped series of details, where data do not converge to a whole, and remain undigested.
Inaccuracies: Boswell tells us early on that he sometimes scurried across London to verify a date, but he apparently wouldn't consult a perpetual calendar; there are a number of occasions where his dates don't align with the day of week, yet his certainty in dating events make it all sound so true.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Wanderer on December 3, 2007
Format: Paperback
Note: I made some immature Mormon angry because of my negative reviews of books that attempted to prove the Book of Mormon, and that person has been slamming my reviews almost as fast as they are posted.

I must have really burned him or her because I've deleted this review and re-posted it and within an hour, I had a "not helpful" vote. Give me a break. That person's faith must be very fragile, indeed. Oh, well.

I'm trying to be "helpful," and you can see that it took some work to put this review together.

So, your "helpful" votes are appreciated. Thanks, and I hope you find some enjoyable quotations (below) from Boswell's wonderful book, but first a little history.

Samuel Johnson, the irascible but generous lexicographer of the eighteenth century, is mostly remembered because of Boswell, and Boswell is remembered because he wrote Johnson's biography.

At the time, Johnson was already famous for his "Dictionary of the English Language," an impressive work for the year 1755. Among many other writings, Johnson put out an edition of Shakespeare's works (1765), with valuable notes that are still referred to today.

Johnson published a "series of grave and moral discourses" in the periodical called the Rambler, but when it was translated into Italian, it came out as the ludicrous "El Vagabondo," something far from Johnson's pious intentions. And of good intentions, it was Johnson who said, "Sir, Hell is paved with good intentions."

"(Johnson's) defense of tea against Mr. Jonas Hanway's violent attack upon that elegant and popular beverage, shows how very well a man of genius can write upon the slightest subject, when he writes, as the Italians say, con amore.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Robert S. Clay Jr. on December 26, 2001
Format: Paperback
Typically, I have a bias against abridged editions of literary works. Nevertheless, prudent editing and abridgement enhances the casual reader's appreciation of this literary tome. Undergraduates working a required reading list for English Lit classes are on their own. Anyway, Samuel Johnson was a noted author and editor of the 18th century English literary scene. Instead of an exhaustive study of Johnson's life as author and editor, biographer Boswell compiled a series of anecdotes, quotations, and correspondence that is held together by his friendship with Johnson. Boswell's purpose was to capture the essence of the man. Johnson was adept at articulating pithy remarks with surgical precision. For example, "...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." The 18th century spellings, etc. remain intact. We have Johnson to thank for the familiar "...hell is paved with good intentions," and "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Boswell takes care to portray Johnson as sexually moral. After the death of his wife, Johnson (according to Boswell) was apparently celibate. Johnson rebuffed "women of the town," and said he wasn't interested in their carnal delights. Johnson told David Garrick, the actor, that he would not go backstage at the theater because "the white bubbies and silk stockings of your Actresses excite my genitals." As an interesting aside, the editor's introduction speculates that Johnson's relationship with the widow Thrale may have been sexual, with bondage overtones. Who knows? The description of London coffeehouses, theaters, and gathering places are heavy with 18th century atmosphere. Bottom line, reading this book is interesting as a curiosity. Its relevance for 21st century readers may seem limited, but don't let that stop you from sampling the fare. ;-)
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