James Boswell forever changed the genre of biography when he painstakingly transformed a scholarly profusion of detail into a perceptive, lifelike portrait of Dr. Samuel Johnson.
James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson reveals a man of outsized appetites and private vulnerabilities and is the source of much of what we know about one of the towering figures of English literature. Boswell spent a great deal of time with Johnson in his final years and from his scrupulously accurate memory and copious journal was able to faithfully record the brilliance and wit of Dr. Johnson’s conversation. Boswell’s aim and achievement was completeness; no detail was too small for him. On this point Dr. Johnson remarked to him, “There is nothing, sir, too little for so little a creature as man.” Boswell’s thirst for detail makes this indisputably the finest of many biographies of Johnson.
This biography gained its unique place in literary history from the fact that its style was revolutionary. The usual style of biographers of that era was to record dry facts from the subject’s public life only. Boswell differed by incorporating actual conversations of Dr. Johnson, which Boswell had previously noted down in journals, and by including many more details of personal life. The result revolutionized the genre.
For both its subject and its style, The Life of Samuel Johnson is still popular with modern critics and students of the history of English thought and of English literature.
“The most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.” (Walter Jackson Bate, American literary critic and biographer)
“The effect of [this] biography is also similar to that of War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Just as those novels provide a social history of Russia, so the Life serves as a portrait of late 18th-century England. On the title page Boswell claimed that his book exhibits ‘a View of Literature and Literary Men in Great Britain, for Near Half a Century,’ and the book has shaped posterity’s view of Johnson’s literary world quite as much as it has created an image of Johnson himself.” (Masterpieces of World Literature)
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In print, a chore; read aloud, a delight
I've tried to read this legendary biography several times over the years, and while I've always suspected that it would provide me with no end of pleasure if I were stranded on the proverbial desert island, in actual daily life it has always proved slow and hard to stick with; in fact, I never even made it up to the point where Boswell first meets his hero.
This audiobook has proven the ideal way of appreciating the book. Most of all, I'm extremely taken with the mellow, cultivated, sober-but-good-humored, aged-in-oak voice and accent of Bernard Mayes. I realize that the quality of a narrator's voice is a matter of personal taste, but I, at least, find him pleasant to listen to even when -- as this particular biography forces him to do -- he's reading through a page or two of Latin. (Yep, that's something you'll have to be ready for if you venture into this book.) I've actually purchased several other titles Mayes has narrated just because he makes the listening so restful and agreeable.
- Tad Davis