Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Printing Technology, Letters, and Samuel Johnson (1987), Alvin Kernan argued that “Samuel Johnson . . . lived out, in an intense and dramatic manner, the social mutation of writers from an earlier role as gentleman-amateurs to a new authorial self based on the realities of print and its conditions of mechanical reproduction.” Kernan thus uses Johnson as a synecdoche for eighteenth century authorship. The social mutations of authors resulted from changes in readership, which expanded in the 1700’s. Robert DeMaria, Jr., who has written a biography of Johnson and a study of Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), uses him to explore the nature of reading in the eighteenth century and beyond, since the approaches to the text that emerged in that period persist.

DeMaria’s taxonomy embraces four ways of confronting a text. The first of these is “study,” or reading to prepare oneself for life—and in Johnson’s case for the afterlife as well, since the Bible was one of the books he studied diligently. So important was the Bible for Johnson that DeMaria devotes a section of his chapter on “study” to this work. Johnson owned a variety of Bibles in various sizes. He carried with him a small copy. When John Jebb, bishop of Limerick, visited Lichfield, Johnson’s birthplace, in 1826, the Reverend Canon Hugh Bailye showed the bishop Johnson’s pocket Bible, which bore “marks of close and constant study, being folded down, according to his custom, at numerous passages.” Johnson preferred to dog-ear his books rather than to annotate them, and the surviving volumes from his library bear few marginal comments. In Idler 74 (September 15, 1759), Johnson warned against annotations because these require readers to “load their minds with superfluous attention, repress the vehemence of curiosity by useless deliberation, and by frequent interruption break the current of narration or the chain of reason, and at last [they] close the volume, and forget the passages and the marks together.” When studying, Johnson did not wish to be interrupted.

Sir John Hawkins, one of Johnson’s oldest friends and earliest biographers, quoted Johnson as saying “that no man read long together with a folio on his table:—Books, said he, that you may carry to the fire, and hold readily in your hand, are the most useful after all.” This sentiment may explain why Johnson had a 1743 edition of a three-volume octavo Bible bound in eight volumes and a 1769 edition of a two-volume quarto Bible bound in seven volumes. A later owner of the 1769 work wrote in it that Johnson had rebound the books for “more convenient reading.” Even when engaged in serious reading, Johnson sought comfort.

A second kind of study that DeMaria discusses involves the classics. A copy of Adam Littleton’s Latin dictionary (1678) at the Lichfield birthplace bears Johnson’s inscription, “Sam: Johnson Sept. 7th 1726,” his seventeenth birthday. Johnson was reading diligently in Latin authors at this period, less assiduously in the Greeks, whom he read intensively at Oxford University. His period of heavy reading probably ended when he left college in 1729; at least Johnson cultivated the image of a dilatory student thereafter. His memory, however, was prodigious. Hester Thrale, a close friend and biographer of Johnson, reported that when the king of Denmark visited England in 1768, the playwright George Colman took one of the Danish noblemen to visit Johnson. Thinking to impress him by discussing Greek literature, the visitor soon discovered that Johnson preserved a “compendious . . . knowledge of authors, books, and every branch of learning in that language.” Johnson later claimed that apart from Thrale’s copy of Xenophon, he had “not looked in a Greek book these ten years.”

His early reading must have been extensive as well as intensive. When Johnson came to Oxford in 1728, Dr. William Adams, master of Pembroke College, said that the young man “was the best qualified for the University that he [Adams] had ever known come there.” Even before matriculating, on his first visit to Oxford to meet his prospective tutor, Johnson astonished the man by quoting from the fifth century grammarian Macrobius.

Macrobius represents another category of books that Johnson studied: compendia of learning. One of Johnson’s favorite works was Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), a virtual encyclopedia of curious lore. Johnson claimed that this “was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wanted to rise.” He owned at least two copies, the sixth edition (1652) and the eighth (1676).

The fourth category of books that Johnson studied was the neo- Latin poets and scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Johnson compiled a list of about a hundred books that he...

(The entire section is 1987 words.)