The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page

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    Here are some books I especially recommend (links take you to amazon's site). All prices are Amazon's (in U.S. dollars), as of October 13, 2004, and do not include shipping. (For some orders shipping may be free — for instance, if your order is over $25 and you live in the US and you don't opt for immediate shipping.)

    About Samuel Johnson:

    Defining the World, by Henry Hitchings. For many people, the Dictionary is Johnson's stellar accomplishment, and since it reigned until it was eclipsed by the Oxford English Dictionary, I am always inclined to grant that perspective its due. Johnson certainly did a helluva job, and Hitchings has done a similarly helluva job in describing all that went into it. It's a very readable, fascinating book, not at all arcane, and well worth your attention.

    Samuel Johnson, by W. Jackson Bate, $17.16. Not nearly as popular a place to begin reading about Johnson as Boswell's biography, but in my view it's more balanced and far better. Bate has the advantage of being more removed, and is able to see Johnson as more of a human being as a result. In addition to dealing with Johnson's successes, Bate gives greater treatment to Johnson's failures and personal difficulties than Boswell does. When I read Boswell, who lionizes Johnson, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world for Johnson to produce all the great writing that he did. When I then read Bate, the triumph of Johnson's writing seemed all the greater. If you're only going to read one biography of Johnson, this should be it.

    The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell, $13.27 plus shipping. This is the most popular place to begin reading about Samuel Johnson - - much of what we know comes from this intimate portrait. Boswell gives us a record of their days together, their conversations, and the letters they exchanged -- many of the most famous Johnson quotes come from this book. He also augments it with considerable details provided by others. It is long, however, and you might find Boswell's tone tedious (I found him obsequious). You might prefer to start with an abridged version($11.20).

    Hester Thrale Piozzi's Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, $18.99. Hester Piozzi was one of the three early contenders for the first full discussion of Johnson's life. What she eventually delivered was not a biography, but her recollection of their times together. She frequently saw Johnson in a different setting than Boswell did, and Johnson also took a more remonstrative tone in talking to Hester than he took with Bozzy. So it is a very different, invaluable book, well worth your having.

    The Life of Samuel Johnson : A Critical Biography, by Robert DeMaria, $21.73. DeMaria's biography intertwines events in Johnson's life with critical analysis of Johnson's works. DeMaria assumes you've done your reading, so it's not a great place to start, but it's a worthwhile read none the less. Another book in this vein which is also very worthwhile is Lawrence Lipking's "Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author", $19.50.

    The Achievement of Samuel Johnson, by W. Jackson Bate. (Out of print, but Amazon usually has used copies starting around $2.50) A wonderful analysis of the major themes in Johnson's moral instruction essays. I would take it to my desert island.

    The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson ($23.99) is a very valuable introduction to Johnson's writings. Contents include not just an obligatory chapter on his life, but also chapters on his poetry, his essays, the Dictionary, his politics, his Shakespeare, religion, views on women, his letters, and his critical reception.

    Johnson's methods in writing his Dictionary are thoroughly discussed in Allen Reddick's The Making of Johnson's Dictionary 1746-1773 ($21.99). It's a detailed examination of one of the most amazing accomplishments in the history of books. I was also struck by Johnson's ability to recognize, years into the process, that his methods were wrong, and start over from the beginning. When I imagine what that must have taken (how bad it had to be, and the emotional crisis associated with setting aside years' efforts), I'm leveled.

    Richard B. Schwartz' Daily Life in Johnson's London ($17.95) helps put context around many aspects Boswell won't explain to you, such as how much a £300 pension could procure, how the currency works, what streets were like in the day and night, etc.


    Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage, by Richard Holmes Used copies starting at $1). Holmes takes the biographical details we have of Johnson in the early 1740's, and the little we know of his friendship with Savage, and expands it into a hypothesis of how they were together. (Johnson wasn't a doctor at that time, of course: Savage died in 1745, and Johnson got his honorary degree ten years later. So there are liberties taken, beginning with the title.)

    According to Queeney, by Beryl Bainbridge, used copies as low as $0.50. Bainbridge imagines life in the Thrale household, with a dying husband and a difficult relationship between Hester and her daughter Queeny. Johnson is a player throughout, sometimes adding to the tension.

    By Samuel Johnson:

    Book cover.Samuel Johnson's Insults, $12.95, a collection of the Great Cham's piercing barbs, edited by Jack Lynch. A great stocking stuffer!

    Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, $39.93, edited by Jack Lynch. Drawn from Johnson's 1st edition (1755), Jack has included over 3,000 of Johnson's entries, along with the quotations Johnson supplied to give force to the meanings. It's a dictionary, and encyclopedia, and a quotations dictionary all rolled into one. (Full edition reprints from the 1970s often go for $200 used, and as for real 1755 first editions, oh, figure a good $15,000.)

    Henry Darcy Curwen's Samuel Johnson Sampler, $16.95. Curwen collected extracts from Johnson's essays into a dozen or so broad themes, and goes beyond the one line witticisms, so you have a chance to see more of Johnson's trains of thought. Extracts are frequently an entire paragraph, so you get fuller reasoning than one gets from a sentence, and more of the richness of Johnson's expression. It's kind of like this web site (maybe it was even the inspiration for this site, I can't remember), only far more portable.

    Basic writings: Donald Greene collected a great anthology of Johnson's writings in an Oxford paperback ($11.17). This collection contains Johnson's major poems, 30-40 of the periodical essays, the preface to Shakespeare (as well as some notes), all of Rasselas, extracts from the Lives of the Poets, some letters, an extract from his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, and much else.

    Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia ($9.95) is Johnson's tale of a prince longing to become more involved with the world at large, and his adventures, as well as the observations of his guide and sister throughout. It is an interesting piece, with much back and forth discussion as the general condition of humanity is dissected.

    Johnson and Boswell's recollections of their Tour to Scotland ($10.47) in 1773 makes for great reading. Again, Boswell provides us with an intimate report of their interactions, while Johnson discusses the end of a life style as a result of greater integration with England. It is also interesting to note the details which each chooses to include or leave out of the account.

    Essays: Unfortunately, there are no inexpensive complete editions of Johnson's periodical essays. This is too bad, because they are genuinely wonderful, and they are a major reason why people care about him. However, while expensive, there are editions from Yale which are complete, well edited, and are not exorbitant. Here are links for the Rambler ($175) and Adventurer and Idler (tough to find, they have a used copy for $200) essays. Penguin published a generous selection of essays, $11.20. It has over 100 essays in it.

    The Lives of The Poets ($225) collects Johnson's prefaces to editions of various English poets' works. This edition is pricey for beginners, but this is the standard one that is cited in the bibliographies, and there is no other complete edition in print. I happen to think it's well worth it.

    Politics: Johnson's Political Writings ($12), includes not only the famous political tracts of the 1770's (The False Alarm, The Patriot, Taxation No Tyranny), but also other works which are less known. Reading only the three I've listed certainly doesn't give you the full scope. His "Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falklands Islands" has some harsh words to say about war; another piece, on the events leading up to the Seven Years' War, comes down harshly on the way British Colonists treated Native Americans, as opposed to the treatment from the French, and contains one of my favorite Johnson lines: "No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous."