Saturday, October 9, 2010

What's Dr. Johnson up to Today?

In some movie version of Little Women (maybe Katherine Hepburn's?), Jo is at her Aunt March's house getting ready to read to her, pulls a book off the shelf, and says, "Let's see what Dr. Johnson is up to today."  Jo's line might convey a little cynicism and lack of enthusiasm: her literary sympathies lie less with Aunt March's classical preferences and more with romance and adventure stories.  But I think the line actually perfectly expresses the best way to read Boswell's Life of Johnson: just drop in on him and read a bit at a time.

The Boswell volume was the first I tried to read when I bought the Great Books set in 1995.  I devoured it night after night for over a month and made it through about two-hundred of the large, fine-print pages (a third of the biography) before stopping.  I knew I would come back, though; by this time Boswell had made me love the man.  He lays out all he knows about Johnson: his fervent Christian faith, his prejudice against the Scots, his brilliant fluency with the language, his tics and weird mannerisms, and above all his quick-witted readiness to speak clearly and thoughtfully on any subject.  A few years later I started reading a hundred pages a year until I finished the book.  Now I'm reading it for the second time, sixty pages a year for each of the ten years of my plan.

What's Dr. Johnson up to recently?  In the last couple of days, I've joined Boswell and Johnson at the Mitre tavern, where they dined with Oliver Goldsmith and General Oglethorpe (!).  Some of the topics of conversation:

  • The Scottish Isles (beautiful, and on the list of must-see locations)
  • Ghosts (denied only by materialists, even though only suspect anecdotal evidence exists)
  • Dueling (defensible in a polished Christian society but avoidable with a good sense of humor)
  • The degree of difference between Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian theology (necessarily small since the three represent branches of a single religion, and that the true religion)
  • Marriage (a boon of civilization, since man in a state of nature would be more tempted to move on to any new attractive mate that comes his way)
  • Literacy (conducive to class tensions when only some have it, conducive to peace and equality when all possess it)
  • Gambling (bad partly because it effects a transfer of property without the production of any trade good or service)
  • Methodists at Oxford (undesirable because they disagree with the principle of the institution)
Sometimes I sympathize with Johnson (I'm open to ghost stories).  Sometimes I disagree with him (dueling is defensible?!).  Sometimes I admire his courage (neither Catholics, Anglicans, nor Presbyterians would likely agree with his observation on theology).  And sometimes I simply learn (I tend to think of a different set of problems with gambling).  But I always enjoy.

Books take us farther and faster than any airplane does.  They introduce us to new friends better than facebook does.  They teach us more efficiently than any classroom lecture does.  They stand ready to serve at a moment's notice and may be set aside abruptly without any chance of offense.

And they instill desire.  I want to travel to the Scottish Isles.  I wish I could converse with Johnson and Boswell at the Mitre.  (By which I mean, I wish I could be there with them, and I wish I had the skills to enter the conversation.)  And I wish I could share my reading list with both Jo and Aunt March; they would each have found something on it to talk about.

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