Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Writing with the Masters: Dr.Samuel Johnson

This week’s post turns from autobiography to biography. Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) wrote poetry and prose and compiled a comprehensive dictionary single-handedly. His biography was written by a close friend, James Boswell, after Johnson’s death. The Life of Johnson contains numerous pithy quotes by Dr. Johnson. Here are three passages that show his opinions on keeping a journal, rambling narratives, and reading bad books.

   [Dr. Johnson] recommended me to keep a journal of my life, full and unreserved. He said it would be a very good exercise, and would yield me great satisfaction when the particulars were faded from my remembrance. I was uncommonly fortunate in having had a previous coincidence of opinion with him upon this subject, for I had kept such a journal for some time; and it was no small pleasure to me to have this to tell him, and to receive his approbation. He counselled me to keep it private, and said I might surely have a friend would burn it in case of my death. From this habit I have been enabled to give the world so many anecdotes, which would otherwise have been lost to posterity. I mentioned that I was afraid I put into my journal too many little incidents. JOHNSON. ‘There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.’

* * *

     A learned gentleman who in the course of conversation wished to inform us of this simple fact, that the Counsel upon the circuit at Shrewsbury were much bitten by fleas, took, I suppose, seven or eight minutes in relating it circumstantially. He in a plentitude of phrase told us, that large bales of woollen cloth were lodged in the town hall; —that by reason of this, fleas nestled there in prodigious numbers; that the lodgings of the counsel were near to the town-hall; —and that those little animals moved from place to place with wonderful agility. Johnson sat in great impatience till the gentlemen had finished his tedious narrative, and then burst out (playfully, however), ‘It is a pity, Sir, that you have not seen a lion, for a flea has taken you such a time, that a lion must have served you a twelvemonth.’

* * *

     In the morning of Tuesday, June 15, while we sat at Dr. Adams’s, we talked of a printed letter from the Reverend Herbert Croft, to a young gentleman who had been his pupil, in which he advised him to read to the end of whatever books he should begin to read. JOHNSON. ‘This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep to them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?’

So keep a journal, quit rambling, and put down that awful book.


The picture at the top of this post is a 1772 painting by Joshua Reynolds. Both the picture and Boswell’s Life of Johnson are in the public domain because of their age.

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