Thursday, February 23, 2006

`Dictionary' Johnson

The only extravagant gift I received for Christmas was Johnson on the English Language, Vol. XVIII in the protracted Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. The volume contains everything implied by its title except the great dictionary itself. I’ve been reading it incrementally, which is not my usual custom. Much of Johnson’s text is dense and devoted to technical linguistic matters I sometimes don’t understand, but his Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language is readily accessible and rich with moral insight. For instance:

“Thus it happens, that in things difficult there is danger from ignorance, and in things easy from confidence; the mind, afraid of greatness, and disdainful of littleness, hastily withdraws herself from painful searches, and passes with scornful rapidity over tasks not adequate to her powers, sometimes too secure for caution, and again too anxious for vigorous effort; sometimes idle in a plain path, and sometimes distracted in labyrinths, and dissipated by different intentions.”

Johnson, as usual, writes from hard experience. His spells of indolence, alternating with periods of Herculean labor, all accompanied by lacerating self-recrimination, are well documented. We observe similar bipolar cycles of sloth and frenzied activity in Coleridge, though his temperament was further complicated by opium addiction. In any case, Johnson deftly diagnoses a significant quirk of my temperament, one I have wrestled with since childhood. Who would expect a preface to an 18th-century dictionary to illuminate, in a very personal manner, one of the less flattering recesses of one’s character?

NOTE: Today I fly to New York on family business, and I’m scheduled to return Sunday. I hope to post some entries from my motel in Westchester County, if technology and my feeble smarts can work out a deal. Either way, I will have more time than usual to read and write without distraction. In the words of Thomas “Fats” Waller: “I don’t stay out late,/Don’t care to go,/ I’m home about eight,/Just me and my radio…” Make that “my books,” and to hell with the rhyme.

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