Friday, July 16, 2010

Guest Post--A Visit to Samuel Johnson's Home in London

Recently we received a postcard from our customer and friend Ed, who was giving a talk in London, though I can't remember if this was for his graduate history degreed or the one in information sciences (It was the latter, it turns out). Ed is a man of many interests--he would be the intersection of attendees for our recent events for Last Words of the Executed and The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime. He recommends both books, by the way.

The postcard was of James Boswell, the iconic namesake of our store. Intriguing. On his return, Ed and I were discussing his visit, and I asked if he might write a blog post on what circumstances led to this postcard. He would.

And so, a few words from Edward Benoit III:

“Alas, Madam! How few books are there of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page…” Samuel Johnson

During recent travels to London, I adventured toward 17 Gough Square, the one time home of Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of the first English Dictionary. Lived in from 1748-1759, the Johnson house remains one of the few residences of its period, and is now surrounded by modern office buildings occupied by solicitors. The interior of the house contains period furnishings, portraits of Johnson and his friends (including James Boswell), and an extensive collection of dictionaries.

The highlight for most visitors unveils itself on the top floor, specifically the location Johnson worked on his dictionary for years. A collection of his favorite words from the thousands of books he read, Johnson’s dictionary codified definitions and spellings within the English language. Intriguingly a modern observer might be confused by the dictionary itself, as it contains many interesting editorial sayings, and quotes from contemporary authors. For example, the definition of oats reads:

OATS. n.s. [?, Saxon] A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

It is of the grass leaved tribe; the flowers have no petals, and are disposed in a loose panicle: the grain is eatable. The meal makes tolerable good bread. Miller.

The oats have eaten the horses. Shakespeare.

It is bare mechanism, no otherwise produced than the turning of a wild oat beard, by the insinuation of the particles of moisture. Locke

For your lean cattle, fodder them with barley straw first, and the oat straw last. Mortimer.

His horse’s allowance of oats and beans, was greater than the journey required. Swift.

Following Johnson’s death, his long time friend James Boswell wrote The Life of Dr. Johnson. Although it is off the beaten path (near Temple Church), and requires payment to enter, this little house and museum remains one of my favorite parts of London. As Dr. Johnson stated, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

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