Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading Essay - Critical Essays

Robert DeMaria Jr.

Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Through a careful examination of what and how Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) read, Robert DeMaria, Jr. develops a four-part taxonomy of reading in SAMUEL JOHNSON AND THE LIFE OF READING. In his youth Johnson studied diligently, reading so intensively and extensively in Latin and Greek that when he matriculated at Pembroke College, Oxford, the Master there remarked that no one had ever come to college better prepared.

Unhappily for Johnson, he lacked the money to continue his formal education and was forced to leave Oxford after only thirteen months. For most of his life he earned his living by his pen, and this writing career compelled him to peruse rather than study books. That is, instead of reading for general knowledge, he sought specific information, whether this was illustrative quotations for his DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (1755) or textual emendations for his critique of William Shakespeare published in 1765 or biographical details for his LIVES OF THE POETS (1779-1781).

Johnson also contributed to and edited various journals, swelling the rivers of journalism that flooded the eighteenth century. Newspapers and other ephemera encourage what DeMaria calls “mere reading,” and this approach carries over to other kinds of texts as well. Johnson was wary of journalism, but he thought that its merits outweighed its drawbacks.

Johnson was even more ambivalent about novels, which promote what DeMaria calls “curious reading.” Johnson thought that realistic fiction could offer people a distorted view of reality, a point he made in a chapter that he contributed to Charlotte Lennox’s THE FEMALE QUIXOTE (1752). Yet he read and wrote fiction. The rise of the novel led not only to a proliferation of fictional works but also changed the way people read them. By the end of the eighteenth century, novels were being read more seriously than they had earlier.

DeMaria’s final chapter explores the future of reading in an electronic age. DeMaria fears that study and curious reading will become less common, as perusal and mere reading expand. He nonetheless remains optimistic about the prospects of both reading and of the book. His contribution here provides reason to share this outlook.

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXXV, November, 1997, p. 477.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 5, 1997, p. 36.