Thursday, December 4, 2014

Boswell and Dr. Johnson on Reading

To open up Boswell’s Life of Johnson and read any given 10% of it (as I do every year in this ten-year reading plan) is to read a manual of life. All right, to be more precise, history’s quintessential biography provides lessons on a Christian, intellectual life. But I wish everyone could live such a life, so I’ll just stick with the phrase “manual of life.” I got my welcome (and needed) instruction on social and emotional health. I benefitted from pious observations and moral injunctions. I gained inspiration from transcripts of good conversation and remarks on travel and politics. And a robust intellectual life naturally requires encounters with lots of books, so I reveled in the numerous comments by both Boswell and his exemplary friend on reading.

I’ve recommended elsewhere in these pages letting children read anything (of appropriate content, of course) that interests them. I hedged my suggestion with the admission that I can only vouch for its success in four cases: the lives of myself, my wife, and my two kids. But Boswell gladdened my heart when he offered Johnson’s endorsement of the policy not just once but twice. Let a boy read any book, Johnson says, in order to learn the joy of reading. He can get better books later. A few days later, I read that Johnson said he wished every boy could be let loose in a library; if he takes on something beyond his capacity to understand, either he will give it up on his own, or he will learn to understand it. (I should note that Johnson limits his suggestions to the male half of the human race only in deference to social norms at the time; he greatly admired intelligent, well-read women.)

A man with decade-long reading reading plans and the determination to give himself a liberal education has to ask what in particular his hero, the great Samuel Johnson, read. In this year’s selection he mentioned Homer – no great surprise. But he also mentioned Greek grammars and annotated translations of Homer, as well as grammars of other languages, especially “Persian” (which I assume means Farsi). I also read about the publication of his Lives of the Poets, naturally pointing to a regular regimen of poetry reading. How well do I measure up to my paragon? Sadly, I don’t know much Greek at all. I should follow Johnson’s advice, get out my basic grammar, and just start going through the first book of the Iliad and portions of the New Testament. I know nothing about Farsi, but I did try to learn some Japanese this year. (I think my mind at fifteen could have mastered hiragana.) And I read more poetry all the time, but I wish I had had someone like Johnson to teach me how to read it early in my life so I didn’t always feel like I was reading in a second language.

I should mention that C. S. Lewis, my twentieth-century hero, modeled the same reading strategy. I’ve been enjoying Alister McGrath’s recent biography of Lewis over the last few days, and he reminds me (1) that young Jack learned to love reading by growing up in a house full of books, (2) that he learned Greek by simply going through Homer with his tutor, Kirkpatrick (the “Great Knock”), and (3) that he learned to enjoy the rhythms and melodies of poetry at an early age. I’ll keep working at all these things, but as a 55-year-old (what the universities politely call a “non-traditional student”), new languages and poetry will continue to sink in slowly for me. I did take quick action on one specific point this morning, though. In going through aspects of his mentor’s Lives of the Poets, Boswell emphasized his opinion that Night Thoughts by Edward Young offered the best Christian poetry in the English language. So I incorporated that volume into the plan for my third decade of scheduled reading, a plan which will go into action in 2016.

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