Reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Yesterday I finally finished reading James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I can’t remember when I started reading the Life of Johnson, but it was probably during the 1990s. I bought a used copy of a paperback edition, which I believe I found at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and that edition is a 1987 reprint; so I must have begun reading after 1987. And I was obsessed with eighteenth century New England history during the 1990s; reading Boswell’s account of one of the most interesting lives of mid-eighteenth century London fit right in with that obsession. So it has taken me about two decades to finally finish reading all 1,400 pages of the book.

I made pretty good progress at the start: as I recall, I read the first third of the book in a few weeks; this part of the book takes place before Boswell actually met Johnson, and it takes the form, more or less, of a narrative. But after this first third of the book, my progress slowed. I would read two or three of Johnson’s conversations, as recorded by Boswell, and I’d have to pause — pause to appreciate the beauty of the language, and to think about what Johnson said. A page of my handwritten notes remains between pages 986 and 987 of the paperback, and I copied out this passage in full:

[Sat. 25 June 1763]

After having given credit to reports of his [Johnson’s] bigotry, I was agreeably surprized when he expressed the following very liberal sentiment, which has the additional value of obviating an objection to our holy religion, founded upon the discordant tenets of Christians themselves: ‘For my part, Sir, I think all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agree in the essential articles, and that their differences are trivial, and rather political than religious.’

Rereading this, I can see why I thought it worthwhile to copy this out by hand.

Johnson was prone to fits of melancholy — today we would probably call him depressive, an unlikable and clinical word — and on this same page of notes I copied out this brief passage: Continue reading “Reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson”