on August 28, 2009
When reading a classic such as Boswell's Life of Johnson, you are mainly looking for two things: good typography and a knowledgeable editor. In this Penguin edition (2008) you get both. With more than 1250 pages of reading, you don't want to be tortured or discouraged by tiny or overstylized type. Here the designer has chosen Adobe Sabon in 9 pt type -- perfect for reading comfortably for long stretches. And you'd be hard pressed to find a better 18th-century scholar than David Womersley (at Oxford). He seems to have a penchant for tackling long and difficult books: Previously, he edited a beautiful edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, also published by Penguin. His editorial notes are well supported, unobtrusive, and beautifully written -- a real class act. So if you're looking for the right edition, this is it! Enjoy.
on March 28, 2010
James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is often called the greatest biography of all-time and may well be. Perhaps such a work can get no higher praise, but it is also highly notable as the first true modern biography - the first really resembling what we think of as biography today. Boswell set new standards for thoroughness, accuracy, and research, greatly expanding the very concept of what a biography could be. He was also very far ahead of his time in anticipating what was later called gonzo journalism - writers inserting themselves into real-life stories; it is of course not done in the same way as later writers, but the concept is similar. Most remarkable of all, though, is that the book is immensely readable, entertaining, and edifying over two hundred years later, which can be said of very few biographies. It is absolutely essential for anyone even remotely interested in Johnson, Boswell, or the late eighteenth century European intellectual circle.
Johnson was perhaps England's best known writer during his last several decades and one of the most famous in the world besides being widely known and renowned for lexicographical and other accomplishments. However, this book's greatness and fame are such that he has long been known primarily via it. Many read it who have read very little or none of him, showing that, unlike nearly all biographies, it has earned a life of its own. There are many reasons for this, not least the fine writing. Even more fundamental is that the book vividly brings an exciting, integral, and profoundly influential era to life. It covers the late Enlightenment when many of the most important people to ever live were prominent. In addition to Johnson, we get first-hand glimpses of such illustrious personages as Adam Smith, Oliver Goldsmith, Pasquale Paoli, David Garrick, and many, many others. Numerous other heavyweights - Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, King George III, etc. - are only slightly in the background. We also get contemporaneous accounts of major events like the American Revolution and the lead up to the French Revolution. In short, though ostensibly the biography of one person, the book is as vibrant, lifelike, and memorable an account of a supremely important era as any history book.
Yet Johnson is always the focus, shown literally from birth to death. Anyone interested in him will find a wealth of information about all aspects of his life as well as his thoughts, feelings, influences, intellectual background, and far more. There is also a great deal of information about his work. Unlike nearly all biographers, Boswell actually knew Johnson well; he was his friend for many years and spent several months annually in his company, essentially interviewing him and making voluminous notes of his conversation. This last is indeed the book's heart and by far its most famous element. Johnson was perhaps his era's most famous conversationalist, revered for wit and argument; Boswell heard many hours of his conversation and reports faithfully. His style here was again innovative. Rather than sprinkling isolated quotes anecdotally, he went to great pains to reproduce full conversations, not only describing the setting and others present but even using drama-like name headings for full verisimilitude. We thus not only see what Johnson said but where, how, and usually why he said it. Many world famous Johnson sayings that would otherwise be lost - i.e., "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" - are immortalized here, as well as some quotes by others. This alone would make the book of great value.
Much has been made of how Boswell's presence affected this; knowing he would write the biography, or at least thinking it possible, he undoubtedly orchestrated much, drawing Johnson out when he might have otherwise been silent. Much of this would have been done in any case as he clearly admired Johnson and loved his talk, but there is no denying the question's importance. Some have condemned Boswell as a shameless celebrity whore or otherwise questioned his motives and veracity, but nearly everyone will consider this nitpicking, fascinating as the question is. For nearly everyone, it makes the book better - far more personal and engaging than biographies are usually even capable of being. Also, for what it is worth, such things mean the book in many ways tells us nearly as much about Boswell as Johnson, making it a sort of hybrid biography/autobiography.
Boswell understandably focuses on the years he knew Johnson, meaning the book is greatly lopsided in favor of the later years after Johnson became famous and nearly all his major work was done. This will annoy those who want a more balanced overview, especially as Boswell makes short shrift of some important early events. Those wanting a more conventional balance should get one of several later biographies, especially as Boswell makes a few errors and, at least according to later sources, leaves out some highly interesting - if not necessarily essential - facts. He openly admits doing so at the start in order to protect Johnson's reputation, though much of what he says elsewhere is unflattering, but some of it may have been unknown to him. For most, though, this is the only Johnson biography that will ever be needed - and its greatness, influence, and importance are such that it is required for all readers with even the slightest interest in English and European literature and history and the art of biography even if they care little or nothing for Johnson or Boswell.
on November 1, 2009
James Boswell--to use a contemporary idiom-- had a mancrush on Samuel Johnson. He wrote this lengthy portrait of his hero--and it's magnificent. This is a vastly entertaining read. Full of fascinating, insightful, provocative, fun, sometimes gossipy detail, Boswell's Life of Johnson is a real treat. After ten pages, I was hooked. In writing his Life of Johnson, Boswell showed us all how fascinating a single man can be when studied in detail by a sympathetic reporter. I suspect that Boswell's Johnson is a much more interesting character than Johnson's Johnson, but that doesn't matter: Boswell's book is a separate creation and entity than Johnson the man. Boswell's hero worship and adulation is infectious. it is difficult not to wish Boswell success in pulling off this grand project: a 1,400 page portrait of a brilliant, admirable, great but flawed man. Get this. You are going to be entertained. Despite its enormous size, this is a fun, interesting, stimulating read. This is the perfect vacation book for anyone who prefers something with more intellectual meat than a thriller or mystery. Anglophiles MUST read this. Anyone who cares about great books should read it. And anyone looking for a book that has stood the test of time should read it. Simply because you will be denying yourself a great experience if you don't. I would definitely want this with me during a long convalescence--it would be a great companion.
on August 19, 2010
I don't know if this is a good thing to admit or not, but I made it through this entire book reading it about 5-10 minutes per night just before nodding off.
Normally I would never a proceed through such a highly-regarded classic like this, but Boswell jumps from topic to topic so frequently, it's almost like each new paragraph is about an entirely different subject. I suppose this would have irked me had I approached this in a focused, solitary way, but as it was it made it possible get through one nugget at a time.
Maybe you should try it. I know of few who have managed to negotiate this one conventionally.
Anyhow, more to the point. If you're fishing around for a good edition, I would definitely go with this Penguin Classics edition, which has copious footnotes and some other stuff. The other one you see everywhere, the Oxford World's Classics has -- unusually for that series -- zilch for footnotes!
on January 26, 2015
James Boswell was the ultimate fan-boy. On page 702 (the text of the Penguin Classic is a little over a thousand pages, plus indexes and notes), Boswell tells a group of men, “I cannot help worshipping him, he is so much superiour to other men.” From the time Johnson’s English dictionary appeared, Boswell was hooked, and went out of his way to arrange a meeting, succeeding in 1763. From then on he became a near-constant companion and confidant for the next 21 years. Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson heaps praise upon its subject to an almost embarrassing degree while simultaneously attempting to preserve unfiltered every morsel of barbed opinion, witty retort, and pithy remark ever uttered by Johnson.
The result is that Johnson comes across as a pompous but often hilarious windbag who seemingly could prattle for hours on virtually any subject, even taking contradictory stands just to keep conversations lively. Boswell admits on page 504 that Johnson saw “conversation as a contest.” Indeed, Johnson treated conversation as jazzmen do cutting contests, and he played to win even if it meant verbally zinging friends as well as foes.
Johnson was a staunch Tory devoted to king and country who hated Americans even before the Revolution. On page 693 Boswell notes in 1778 that Johnson “attacked the Americans with intemperate vehemence of abuse.” (No one would ever charge Johnson with being a liberal, though he was against slavery; curiously, fawning acolyte Boswell disagreed and saw slavery as sanctioned in the Bible.) Johnson was also devoted to the Church of England (on page 230 we find Voltaire referring to Johnson as “a superstitious dog”). But set him at a tavern table with a group of other loquacious gents, and the verbiage flew like shrapnel. (Johnson on page 505: “...there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness has been produced as by a good tavern or inn.”) One of their literary group, Colly Cibber, wrote in a play, “There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.”
Johnson’s often antique opinions can be startling, whether on the subject of women, marriage, politics (p. 716, on whether public officials should be appointed by seniority or voted for: “...there is no more reason to suppose that the choice of a rabble will be right, than that chance will be right”), the existence of witches and ghosts, or his belief that teachers should be free to beat their pupils. P. 344: “...a schoolmaster has a prescriptive right to beat; and that an action of assault and battery cannot be admitted against him, unless there is some great excess, some barbarity...In our schools in England, many boys have been maimed, yet I never heard of an action against a schoolmaster on that account.” Johnson’s defense of this is that it was done to him as a boy and he turned out all right.
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has about nine pages of quotes attributed to Samuel Johnson. Such collections are fine as shortcuts, but if you want the context of those remarks, as well as many, many others (along with a fascinating look at 18th century London life), Boswell’s biography is without peer as an entertaining history.