Saturday, April 24, 2010

Introducing Dr Johnson

Introducing Dr Johnson

James Boswell's Life of Johnson, published in 1791, is a classic of English Literature. It is the most celebrated biography in the English language. Boswell, through prolonged research and reference to the transcripts of his many conversations with Johnson, created a masterpiece.

I inherted a copy of Life of Johnson - in three volumes - from my grandfather. So I am setting out to read and comment on the entirity over a fairly long period, I suspect. I will be delighted If I am joined along the way by other Johnson-a-files (or phobes).

Why Dr Johnson?

Dr Samuel Johnson (1709 to 1784) was one of the most eminent literary figures of his day, although it is probably his English Dictionary, published in 1755, that is still best known today.

James Boswell brings Johnson to life. Through Boswell's writing we find Johnson's sparkling converstaion, his eccentricities and his outbursts of outraged opinion - these make him an engaging subject, someone who we will find ourselves arguing with often. My grandfather did this too, often writing comments in the margins of the book with exclamation marks, that still ring out 80 years after they were put down! I will add these to the blog as we go along.

Also, I want to learn more about the period - because 18th century England seemed to carry such a spirit of enquiry, which to our jaded 21st century thinking, seems amazingly optimistic. I have often admired the way that the writers, scientists, and other assorted deep-thinkers of the age tried to "nail" their subject matter. Somehow, it made their life seem more three dimensional than ours.

My method

For each chunk of text that I read, I will post a summary and try and draw out the main themes. Did I agree with Johnson on this point, or did I think it was bull _ _ _ _ ? What do I observe of Johnson's character, and what of the London which he lived in? What do we find out about James Boswell's personality also? Does the thinking of that age challenge my own attitudes?

I am going to use links to gutenberg to identify the text on line as I go. So here we go. My first chunk will be a small one: Boswell's first advertisement and dedication - stay tuned. I look forward to your comments!

Post script

What would Dr Johnson have thought of the word "blog"? (Blog is short for Web Log) Not much, no doubt, but he would not have denied its right to exist. He wrote in the introduction to his dictionary "sounds are too volatile and subtle for legal restraints, to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertaking of pride."