on January 31, 2005
I read Johnson in the same way that I read Jane Austen, for the pure joy--and the celebration--of their beautifully balanced sentences. Indeed, it's almost like playing Bach to perform these sentences as they mount into paragraphs. One walks away feeling that one's thinking apparatus has been lovingly oiled, buffed, spun and polished. In addition, there's the incredible range of this man's thinking to applaud as well. However, the problem for some people might be that the book in question, with its generous selection and its easy-on-the eye type size, is roughly the same dimensions as Johnson's brain, and probably a tad heavier, which mitigates against taking it out for a stroll stuffed into the back pocket for an occasional dip. Instead it should be installed in the bedroom or the bathroom or any room where it can be consulted in an on-again, off-again manner. I read the Rambler selections, the dictionary and the poetry in this way. What's good about Johnson is that his prose is like poetry--it can't be read through just once, but demands re-reading, and each time offers yet another prize for the effort. Funny that it all came from a grotesque hypocrite and snob who enjoyed bullying others and was none too clean about his shirt and linen. Finally, brilliant as he was, I have to disagree with Johnson when he says, at the beginning of his Rambler Essay "The Need for General Knowledge" "That wonder is the effect of ignorance has been often observed....Wonder is a pause of reason, a sudden cessation of the mental progress, which lasts only while the understanding is fixed upon some single idea, and is at an end when it recovers force enough to divide the subject into its parts, or mark the intermediate gradations from the first agent to the last consequence...." (pg. 222 this book). The more I understand Johnson and his times, his parts and his divisions, the more I am struck with wonder.
on June 16, 2007
OK, I'll admit it... When I dropped out of high school at the tender age of 14 for a career of glue-sniffing and joy-riding round the graffiti-sprayed council estates of my native Irvine, I was a 'seven-stone weakling' in terms of using the English language.
Brought up on a diet of comic books, tabloid newspapers, and football magazines (Shoot, Match Weekly, etc) and 'educated' in a Socialist-inspired 'comprehensive' school, I wasn't really equipped for my future career as an international journalist. But then something very strange and bewitching happened - I discovered 'THE DOCTOR,' as we acolytes refer to him, and started mentally working out on his long, finely wrought sentences.
At first, each seemingly interminable sentence was like trying to swim the English Channel - I thought I would drown before reaching the other end - but, somehow, I survived and found myself on dry land, confused and wet, but nevertheless alive and raring to have another go.
In the months that followed, the good doctor's erudite style became Mother's milk to me as I progressively beefed up my English. This enabled me to grab a place at the prestigious university of Thames Polytechnic and, then, on graduation, to a career writing for a wide range of excellent publications, including Riff Raff, Tokyo Notice Board, and the Wall Street Journal.
The great thing about THE DOCTOR's prose is that he uses a disproportionate number of abstract nouns, which means you have to mentally provide your own examples. At first this can be extremely challenging, but if you stick with it, your brain will become, as mine has, a potent and expressive tool.
on September 8, 2000
It's a bit of a misnomer to call this anthology "The Major Works," because the principle guiding the original selection (under a different title) was to provide a diverse sampling of what he'd written -- and included items which would never be considered "major works" (such as a Latin school exercise and letters). They are worth reading, but not "major works." That having been said, as an *anthology* of Johnson's writings, this is the one to get.
Oxford's anthology of Samuel Johnson's writings is superior to Penguin's because it is more comprehensive, and displays more of his variety, as well as more of what he is known for. In comparison to the Penguin anthology, this collection includes all of Johnson's short fiction "Rasselas" (an excellent book -- read my review of it in the Penguin edition of Rasselas): Penguin will ask you to buy a separate copy of Rasselas on top of their anthology. In addition, Oxford's anthology offers extracts of "Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland" (Penguin has a separate volume of that, although there it is complete and coupled with Boswell's companion piece).
The Oxford anthology offers 40 periodic essays (Ramblers, Adventurers, & Idlers), a form for which he is well known; plus his prefaces to Shakespeare and the Dictionary; the major poems (chief among them "London" and "The Vanity of Human Wishes"); a sermon; an extract of a Parliamentarian debate; his Life of Boerhaave; his review of Soame Jenyn's "A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil," his political pamphlet "The Patriot," an extract from a law lecture, extracts from "The Lives of The Poets", some letters... At over 800 pages, this is very comprehensive.
The late Donald Greene provided an excellent introduction and set of notes.
Note, however, that this is essentially the same anthology Oxford has had in print for years (my first copy is 15 years old, and this is the third cover under which it's been published). The copyright indicates there have been some revisions to this 2000 edition, but they are not apparent. Very great wine in a brand new bottle.
I still wish, however, that the content were re-thought with the new title. Including letters and odd bits was fine under old titles, but it seems to me that there are "major works" which are missing, at the expense of stray items. Too few of the biographies from "The Lives of the Poets" are complete, and "Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland" deserves more space than its extract receives under a title "The Major Works." Perhaps an additional sermon or two is called for. These are quibbles: the content is fine, it's the title that's off.
on April 22, 2002
This is undeniably the best anthology of Johnson currently available -- or for that matter that has ever been available under one cover. It outshines Penguin's much too abbreviated version and contains all the major items: a fine selection of the essays, several biographical pieces including the essential Soame Jenyns and Life of Savage, the prefaces to the Dictionary and to Shakespeare, a selection of prayers, some wonderful letters, etc.
Penguin had promised a selection of the Lives of the Poets (or Prefaces Biographical and Critical to be more accurate), but has yet to formally announce publication. There is but a small sampling of these wonderful and important essays in the Oxford edition here.
For the journey to Scotland (only excerpted here), I much prefer Penguin's complete edition of the Journey, which includes Boswell's Journal (but has the most eccentric annotation one might imagine -- more the product of a dyspeptic travel writer than a Johnsonian scholar). Reading Boswell and Johnson together is an utter delight -- moving from the formality, grace and power of Johnson to the smaller, more intimate pleasures of Boswell gives one the feeling of having captured, in the adventurous peregrinations of these two inimitable characters, the very breadth and depth of eighteenth century English writing.
To love and admire Johnson, but not appreciate the brilliant, even if much different, stylistic inventions of Boswell seems to me somewhat perverse. Certainly Boswell had his shortcomings, but half the joy of reading and 'knowing' Johnson and his circle comes from appreciating the little peccadilloes and foibles that each displayed in his turn--not the least the Great Cham, Johnson, himself. I cannot think of either of these two men that I don't see Thomas Rowlandson's wonderful caricature of the two walking arm in arm--the older man a head taller, wagging his finger and pontificating casually and brilliantly on some weighty matter, and the other rolling along beside him smiling with sweet admiration and pride of association. To read Johnson and bypass Boswell, is to find one great treasure and forsake another.
As Frank Lynch points out in the review below this edition is identical to the blue cover edition offered elsewhere on this site. (Although the lovely new Hogarth cover is a delightful addition, I bought a second copy thinking this was a new book with new content... I suppose I should also add that as the book is not new, neither is this review which you may find in its earlier incarnation under the listing for the blue cover edition.)
on July 5, 2007
The case of Dr. Johnson is a strange one. On the one hand, the extent of his achievements, the magnetism of his personality, and the sheer strength of his genius has forever secured him a place among the literary giants of all ages. On the other hand, Time seems to have both granted him fame and deprived him of readers. Nowadays, when people want Dr. Johnson, they go straight to James Boswell. The man has sadly overshadowed the author; and Samuel Johnson is not as much read as he is quoted, nor as closely appreciated as he is admired from afar. Indeed, his works fit Mark Twain's definition of a classic: "A book which people praise and don't read".
And that is a shame, since, as this book amply proves, Samuel Johnson is one of the best and most delightful writers the world has ever seen. He is deep in meaning, and felicitous in expression; never dull, always memorable. As the man himself, his prose has a fascinating quality to it: his architecturally built sentences expand for what sometimes feels like forever, linking up ideas and images, until a sudden burst of energy condenses the whole paragraph into a brilliant aphorism. Each phrase is balanced to perfection. Whenever obscure, Johnson usually illustrates his words with exact allusions, metaphors and similes; he particularly relishes in three-folded tropes: "To a community, sedition is a fever, corruption a gangrene, and idleness an atrophy" (pg 285); "In the bottle discontent seeks for comfort, cowardice for courage, and bashfulness for confidence" (pg 664). His acute and eminently quotable observations, whether about learned matters ("Notes are often necessary, but a necessary evil") or about human nature in general ("Many complain of neglect who never tried to attract regard ") are to be found throughout his whole oeuvre.
However, as painstakingly constructed as his writings might appear to be, the incredible truth is that he wrote many of them as he went along, without even reading them over, prodded by deadlines and debts. Johnson admitted having sometimes written half an essay on the spot, sent it to the presses, and finished the second half as the first half was being printed. He wrote his only novel, Rasselas, in the evenings of a week, and the first 48 pages of his wonderful Life of Savage in a sitting. ("But then again, I sat all night".) That nervous energy can be felt even in his calmer passages, lurking in between the lines, waiting for the inevitable outburst of indignation or angry disapproval to be released.
Regarding this edition, it is by far the best one-volume anthology of Johnson's works now available. It's biggest defect, in fact, consists merely in its inappropriate title: the very prologue happily admits the book is a wide-ranging sampling of Johnson's output and not just his "Major Works". Oxford just decided to re-name the anthology without touching the content, which explains why it still proudly includes Latin School exercises, extemporary verses, pieces "printed in full for the first time" and "lesser-known works". While I would have preferred having fewer, yet more complete pieces, the selection at least feels fresh and does not leave out any of Johnson's must-haves: his poetry (which, although often overlooked, has been praised by authors such as TS Eliot and Bloom), his timeless essays and remarkable biographies, the Preface to his Dictionary (of which some facsimile pages are included), the Preface to his edition of Shakespeare's plays (surely one of the best-written and most lucid examples of literary criticism ever published), Rasselas unabridged, and a few of his Lives of the Poets - which are, of course, quintessential Johnson. In other words, this book is a perfect introduction to those who are new to the author, and even the most avid Johnsonian will find in it something he has never read before, or an excuse to reread something he already knows by heart.
Samuel Johnson is someone towards whom one can feel many things, but not indifference. Hazlitt detested him and decried the "periodical revolution of his style", that search for equilibrium which often made Johnson turn from high praise to stern criticism in the blink of an eye; Carlyle crowned him "the Hero of the Man of Letters". It seems that people must either love the Doctor's elegance, or hate his pompous use of polysyllabic and Latinate words; either exalt his discernment, or deplore his intolerance. I am no exception to the rule. Simply put, I think reading Johnson means enjoying most of the pleasures Literature can give. That is why I consider he deserves more than our mere admiration: he deserves to be read. Certainly Samuel Johnson's achievements alone would make him remembered, but it's his writings that make him unforgettable.
This is the anthology to buy. Mona Wilson's collection from 1963 is also good, but the texts are less certain. Greene's annotations and bibliography are expert. He was the leading student of Johnson in the 20th century (after, he would say, his mentor James Clifford). I agree with Frank Lynch that it would be preferable to have the entire Journey here, but it is readily available elsewhere and students will find it very convenient to see some of Johnson's little-known but very important works (his life of Boerhaave, e.g. and his Sermon #5) available in this large but relatively inexpensive anthology.
on March 25, 2005
Johnson's sentences are so beautifully composed that when reading him, I am apt to focus mainly on his sentence structures rather than what he says. This is not to say that his philosophy is boring; indeed it is very interesting and inspiring, only the way he translated that philosophy into words is more so. "What? Johnson's style is more inspiring than his philosophy? Nothing could be more absurd," some may say. Certainly the frequent use of inserted clauses and complex phrases makes some of his sentences a little cumbersome, and those who are accustomed to an easy read often find his style less acceptable, especially when the movement of "Plain English" is reaching its climax, and writing plainly and succinctly has become a virtue. But Johnson's prose style has an attraction-or a spell if you like-we can never find in, say, newspaper articles; insomuch that those who see language as more than a means of communication, that is, those who can enjoy language for its own sake, find wandering into his lanaguage labyrinth far more pleasant than merely digesting what today's main news communicate.
In his criticism "The Plays of William Shakespeare," Johnson wrote, "The Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence but by remarking that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments," suggesting that if Shakespeare's works provoked reverence, it is in so far as it had survived the test of time. Now, reading this statement more than two century after his death, I believe that we can revere Johnson's works for the same reason he revered Shakespeare.
on August 21, 2012
I was required to buy this book in college and I love it. As a student of the neo-classical age, I must say Dr. Johnson is the glue that holds the period together. His criticism, providing the first dictionary, and the complete version of Rasselas set this edition apart.
For the reader new to the neo-classical, I would highly recommend this book as the primer by which I began my study. What makes it easy is most of the cuttings are relatively short, and the Rambler, Idler and Adventurer articles, while nearly 300 years old, are still applicable in many situations today.
Dr. Johnson is a man of all seasons, a man who was of his time, but transcends into the new age as a voice of reason. I would state firmly that the size of this book should not deter the reader, for a small price, one can get all the Johnson one could ever want and then read it at one's own pace. I really recommend this to anyone who has read or attempted to read Boswell's life of Johnson, as this will let you know what came from the horse's mouth so-to-speak.
on December 26, 2012
well worth it just for the fact it contains parts of the hard to find and expensive The Rambler" works. not for the light readers but his thoughs and messages come across quite clear. an astute reader of human nature and social challenges and changes that happened and are happening now. i am a huge english lit nerd,so keep that in mind.
on March 22, 2011
Everyone knows Boswell's Life of Johnson, but if you want to know the man's works, this is the best place to start. Johnson could be petty, grumpy, and quite testy at times; but he was always compassionate and generous and when the chips were down he was one hard worker. He could be witty as hell (the Lord Chesterfield letter), and his dry wit was second to none- in the Preface to Milton he writes: "It is remarkable at this interview the Brother is taken with a short fit of rhyming." His Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare is wonderful and should be read a a conterpart to Tolstoy's doom and gloom denunciation (O, those happy Russians). Johnson is one of the few writers I'd loved to have met; he'd been a great man to have had a cup of tea with and then trotted out on a long ramble. Turn the boob tube off and savor his works! Read a real writer for once, you won't regret it. Johnson and all the great writers live every day, all you have to do is read them.