Saturday, July 05, 2014

`I Would Put a Child in a Library'

Thanks to Dave Lull for alerting me to the Yale Digital Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. The project started in 1955 when a committee of scholars resolved to edit and publish accurate texts of Johnson’s work. Their goal was to bring out nine volumes and the project was expected to take two years. The first volume, Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, was published in 1958. Almost sixty years later, the undertaking has grown more ambitious, and twenty-one volumes have appeared. The most recently published are the three volumes of The Lives of the Poets (2010). Another two volumes are in the works: volume 19, Biographical Writings: Soldiers, Scholars, and Friends, and volume 20, Occasional Writings: Prefaces, Proposals, Apologies, and Dedications. The job is daunting and our debt to three generations of Johnson scholars is immeasurable. Consider this, from the project web site:

“The YDJ [Yale Digital Johnson] identifies over forty genres to which Johnson contributed. He wrote in almost every possible genre from advertisement to epitaph, from prayer to parody, from satire to tragedy.”
We’ve long had reliable editions of Shakespeare and Milton available online. Now Johnson, their peerless peer, joins them, and I’m reminded of what Boswell reports Johnson saying: “I would put a child in a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice.” Now we are such children and the library doesn’t cost us a penny. When volume 18, Johnson on the English Language, appeared in 2005, here’s what Christopher Ricks said:
“These editors love Johnson, entirely and unsentimentally, so it is characteristic of their annotations to be tinged with something of the sly banter that Johnson himself likes to introduce into his scholarly commentary.”
The Yale editions of Johnson are doubly blessed – with the Good Doctor himself and his learned, respectful annotators. Apart from erudition and good sense, they make for delicious reading. Recall this other report from Boswell: “A child should not be discouraged from reading anything that he takes a liking to from a notion that it is above his reach.”

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