Thursday, July 06, 2006

Another Book to Read

According to this review, Henry Hitchings' new biography of Samuel Johnson and his famous dictionary is an excellent read:

Despite shifting tastes and trends, Samuel Johnson still looms large in our literary history. And with good reason. He so dominated his own era that his contemporaries nicknamed him the "Colossus of Literature" and the "Literary Dictator," his century came to be called "The Age of Johnson" (not even Shakespeare achieved that kind of accolade), and he pioneered or perfected many of the literary genres that continue to inform our cultural life today. Johnson helped invent the modern magazine, contributing for 16 years to the success of the Gentleman's Magazine, ancestor of Time, Newsweek, and the like, and he fostered the birth of modern book review criticism with his articles there, in his own Literary Magazine, and in several other periodicals over the years. He wrote two of the most important poems of the 18th century, "London" and "The Vanity of Human Wishes." His Rambler essays (two a week, 104 weeks straight, 1750-52) were a must-read in his day and remained so for at least 150 years afterwards. Johnson became the first syndicated columnist, from 1758 to 1760, with his weekly Idler essays. His novel Rasselas (1759) was a bestseller (three editions its first year), has never been out of print in the 245 years since, and has become a classic of world literature, translated into Arabic, Bengali, Japanese, and scores of other languages. His edition of The Works of Shakespeare (1765) added momentum to Shakespeare's emergence as the national bard and broke the chokehold that rules-bound criticism (i.e., the "three unities") had long held on literature. Johnson virtually invented literary biography in his Lives of the Poets (1779-81), where he also practiced his cranky brand of reader-centered criticism and elevated the "common reader" (with Virginia Woolf's later approval) as the final judge of literary merit. And, had he written nothing, he would still figure in our history as the colorful subject of what is widely regarded as the first modern biography, Boswell's Life of Johnson.


Towering over all his other achievements was Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which Hitchings justifiably calls "the most important British cultural monument of the eighteenth century." In this, his first book, Hitchings has accomplished what might seem impossible: an erudite but lively and engaging account of the writing of a dictionary. He has wisely set the story of the Dictionary in the context of Johnson's life, deftly interweaving his narrative with factual and anecdotal gems drawn from history, literature, lexicography, and popular culture, and cleverly presenting the whole in 35 short, reader-friendly chapters averaging seven pages each. The chapters are each entitled with a dictionary word, ordered alphabetically from "Adventurous" to "Zootomy," and each ingeniously (for the most part) tied to the chapter's content, so that both the overt orderliness and the latent playfulness of Johnson's Dictionary are evoked throughout. The result is a book that will appeal to anyone interested in Johnson, the 18th century, the history of language and lexicography, or just an absorbing bedside read. It is a triumph, and an example of what can happen when wide-ranging scholarship, a fresh approach, and a good storyteller come together in one book.

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