There’s little I can say about James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson that hasn’t been said before, and better. Thus, I won’t attempt a real review, but I’ll just put down some of my observations. It is simply the best biography and one of the most entertaining books in the English language. Along with Alexander Pope, Johnson was one of the two towering figures of 18th century literature. Unfortunately, he’s not as well-remembered today as he might be, I think because his greatest achievement, writing the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, has been supplanted by the OED and Webster and others.
He was also a poet, an essayist (almost singlehandedly penning both the Rambler and the Idler, two magazines of the time), a literary historian, one of the foremost Latin scholars of his century, and possibly the best English conversationalist ever. That last point is especially made clear in Boswell’s biography. Boswell, a wealthy member of the Scottish gentry, and probably Johnson’s best friend for the final 30 years of his life, accompanied his friend to dinner parties and on excursions around London and the English countryside, all the while recording everything Johnson said throughout the day in his journal. Rarely a page goes by without one of Johnson’s finely honed witticisms, trenchant observations of human life, or a funny or enlightening conversation with a companion.
And the companions Johnson had! Just off the top of my head, Joshua Reynolds (foremost English painter of the 18th century), Edmund Burke (famous conservative philosopher), Oliver Goldsmith (leading playright), and Edward Gibbon (wrote The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire) turn up with regularity. There are also cameos by King George III, Adam Smith, John Wesley, and dozens of others I can’t remember at the moment.
That cast of characters is one reason this book is what I refer to as a “Shortcut to Smartness.” By this, I mean a book that so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas that it is like a college course in and of itself. First, you learn everything about Samuel Johnson himself. Second, you learn a lot about all his famous friends. Third, you improve your grasp of 18th century British history, for many historical events are referenced. Fourth, more so than in most biographies, you learn about everyday life in the past, because the book covers not only the major events of Johnson’s life but also the little day-to-day oddities and intersting happenings. Fifth, you become wiser about human nature and the best ways to live, for Johnson’s insight can’t help but sink in. (In the future on this blog, I’ll talk about more books I think of as Shortcuts to Smartness.)
Now, Life of Johnson is a thick book, but don’t be intimidated! This is my second time through, and it’s taken me more than a year. But that’s not at all because it’s so difficult to read, but because I read twenty or thirty pages at a time and then put it aside for a few days. It’s actually the perfect book to pick up and put down like that as so much of it is episodic–a few pages are devoted to, say, a visit to Johnson’s alma mater, Oxford, or an evening meeting of the Literary Club, or Johnson’s thoughts on the occasion of a friend whose son was hanged, etc.. But I always come back to it because it’s so funny and wise. I think the perfect reader for this book would be an aspiring English or history major during the summer before college–it would give a student such an edge up on the competition in so many ways. But really, any adult who wants to learn about a witty, humane, learned man who had a huge impact on English letters would find Life of Johnson to be of interest.