Well, I’ve finished Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and I feel a real sense of accomplishment looking at the very thick, 1250-page edition I’ve got on my shelves. I’m very glad I read it and that I read the whole thing, but I must say that Sandra‘s suggestion that I might read the abridged version was a good one, and although I didn’t follow her advice, I would recommend an abridgement to someone interested in the book but not … you know … obsessive about the time period or the author or subject.
I’m not usually one for abridgements; in fact, I’m really never one for them, but in this case, I think it’s justifiable if you’re sort of interested in the book but are hesitant to devote 1250 pages worth of time to it. The Life of Johnson is filled with interesting stories about Johnson and his friends; great anecdotes; meditations on reading, writing, religion, politics, and famous people of the time; and all kinds of other things. But it’s also full of lots of dull sections, too. It has long descriptions of legal cases Boswell was working on and sought advice from Johnson about. It has a lot of letters, many of which aren’t all that interesting — letters inquiring about people’s health or settling business details or making travel arrangements. Boswell throws everything into the book that someone completely and utterly obsessed with Johnson’s life would want to see — and I mean completely and utterly obsessed. The level of documentation is rather overwhelming.
It’s not at all like the biographies we read today that try to cover the subject’s life evenly and thoroughly; the section on Johnson’s life before Boswell appeared on the scene is relatively short and the later parts of Johnson’s life after Boswell are long. Rather than trying to create the kind of modern biographical narrative with developed stories and smooth transitions and an overarching argument, The Life is rather choppy, made up of short episodes that move abruptly from one to the next. It’s more like a pastiche of documentation and evidence and anecdote than a narrative. Boswell is half biographer, half editor.
Boswell is also an important part of the biography himself; while telling his first-hand accounts of time spent with Johnson, Boswell reveals much about himself — not only his actions and his half of the conversations and his letters to Johnson, but his capacity for friendship and adoration.
If there is an overarching argument to the book, it’s that while Johnson was not a perfect human being, he was awfully darn close; those who had ever attacked and criticized Johnson come in for their own dose of criticism here. Boswell does try to be fair, pointing out what he sees as Johnson’s faults, but the overriding tone is defensive: yes, Johnson looked odd, he could come across as rude, he would argue for things he didn’t believe in just for the fun of it, he could take pleasure in attacking people, and he held some rather bizarre beliefs, but he was a genius, and that’s what we should remember.
I’m hoping Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task comes in the mail soon, via Book Mooch, because I’m excited to learn about the creation of The Life. That, in itself, is bound to be a marvelous story.