Friday, July 14, 2017

`Every Little Circumstance'

It ranks among Dr. Johnson’s greatest hits, known by hearsay even by those who have never read Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

“Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”

The schoolmarms among us will quibble, but Johnson’s prescription is correct for those of us already reliant on free-range reading. I hate to be told to read a book, even casually, and even one I’m already predisposed to reading. I’ve refused for years to read certain volumes I was ordered to read. Not reading some books is at least as important as reading others. This is an aspect of the most precious of all our rights: the right to be left alone. Boswell observes of Johnson’s diktat: “To a man of vigourous intellect and arduous curiosity like his own, reading without a regular plan may be beneficial; though even such a man must submit to it, if he would attain a full understanding of any of the sciences.”  

Johnson was speaking to Boswell on this date, July 14, in 1763. The pair had met less than two months earlier. Their unlikely friendship was deepening. Johnson was fifty-three; Boswell, twenty-two. In The Journals of James Boswell, 1762-1795, we find a less polished but more personal version of the same exchange, set in the Mitre public house on Fleet Street. Johnson dispenses with James Macpherson, the Scottish poet and fraud: “`So would he tumble in a hog-sty,’ said Johnson, `as long as you look at him and cry to him to come out. But let him alone, never mind him, and he’ll soon give it over.’”

Johnson gives a toast to Sir David Dalrymple, the Scottish judge and historian who Boswell tells him had praised Rasselas and The Rambler. Then Boswell paraphrases his friend: “Mr Johnson considered reading what you have an inclination for as eating what you have an appetite for.” Next comes a comic ritual played out by the pair:

 “. . . Mr. Johnson said, `We will not drink two bottles of port.’ When one was drank, he called for another pint; and when we had got to the bottom of that, and I was distributing it equally, `Come,’ said he, `you need not measure it so exactly.’ `Sir,’ said I, `it is done.’ `Well, sir,’ said he, `are you satisfied? or would you choose another?’ `Would you, Sir?’ said I. `Yes,’ said he, `I think I would. I think two bottles would seem to be the quantity for us.’ Accordingly, we made them out.”

The sharing of the port seems to seal the bond of their new friendship. What Boswell next describes gives the lie to Johnson’s reputation as a combative ogre, and suggests that Boswell already had his eye on a future life of Johnson (not published until 1791, seven years after Johnson’s death):

“I take pleasure in recording every little circumstance in so great a man as Mr Johnson. This little specimen of social pleasantry will serve me to tell as an agreeable story to literary people. He took me cordially by the hand and said, `My Dear Boswell! I do love you very much.’ I will be vain, there’s enough.”

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