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Boswell and Dictionary Johnson (1)

The first of three entries.

I started reading Dickens' Bleak House this past summer but I’m still not finished with it. I have passed page 400 though, so there are less than 200 pages left. I have the consolation of knowing that at least I’m reading it faster than Dickens wrote it, and even faster than contemporary readers read it, since it was published in installments between March 1852 and September 1853. That’s a year and a half. I’m confident that I’ll be done before January 2013.

I took a break from Dickens (the fact is that I’m constantly taking breaks from Dickens) to read an excerpt from James Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson. It’s one of those small-format Penguin classics that they used to sell for $1.50. It’s only 51 pages long. I was easily able to read it in one day without disturbing my normal course of activities. I have a bunch of these small-format books, in English and in Spanish, and even one or two in French. Back in the days before the euro, the Alianza publishers had a series called “Alianza Cien,” referring to the price of each book: 100 pesetas, about a dollar. The books are thin, and about four inches by five inches, and fit easily into your pants pocket.

Johnson tells Boswell:

“Idleness is a disease that must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”

I agree with this sentiment. Long past are the days when I would read things because I thought I should.

Dr. Johnson continues, “… a young man should read five hours in a day, and so may acquire a great deal of knowledge.”

Also long past are the days when I would read five hours, but then again, I’m not a young man anymore, alas. After all, as Johnson tells Boswell, “young man, ply your book diligently now, acquire a stock of knowledge, for when years come upon you, you will find that poring upon books will be but an irksome task.” How true. I certainly don’t “pore upon books” like I once did.

Johnson reminds me of several people I’ve known who were compelling talkers, people with whom I may not have been in agreement ideologically, and with whom I was not on a par with intellectually, but who nevertheless seemed to enjoy my company.

Boswell describes visiting Johnson at his residence for the first time:

“He received me courteously; but, it must be confessed, that his apartment, and furniture, and morning dress were sufficiently uncouth. His brown suit of cloaths looked very rusty; he had on a little old shrivelled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose; his black worsted stockings ill drawn up; and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers. But all these slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk.”



May 2019



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