Saturday, August 1, 2009

Reading (finally) Boswell's Life of Johnson (part 1)--with Guest Blogger John Eklund

It was my initial thought that guest bloggers would populate on our bookseller site, The Boswellian. However, when pressed, I realized that when push came to shove, if someone gave me a great posting, I'd put it wherever they told me to. And what could be more appropriate for Boswell and Books than longtime bookseller/sales rep/friend/mentor John Eklund reading The Life of Samuel Johnson? So anyway...

There are a handful of classics that I've circled for years, intending to read but never quite getting around to them. You probably have a few of your own. For me, one of the most compelling in this genre has been Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. I couldn't even say how many times I've picked it up, considered reading it- I've even bought it a couple times, only to give it away or sell it unread. But still, it calls to me. It was one of David Schwartz's favorite books- hence the bookshop logo, which has now passed down to Daniel Goldin at Boswell Books. "Who is that guy?", people would sometimes ask when I worked at the bookshop, though, thankfully, not as often as you might expect, because I didn't have a very good answer. "Oh, that's James Boswell, who wrote the first modern biography- of the great Samuel Johnson." My boyfriend even dressed up as Boswell (don't tell the Milwaukee Rep we pillaged their prop department for his costume) for the grand opening of the Iron Block store downtown. He knew even less about Boswell than I, but did an excellent impression.

So now that my neighborhood bookstore is called Boswell Books, and now that I'm selling a book on the fall Harvard University press list in honor of the Samuel Johnson tercentenary (sorry, shameless plug: Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson, September 09, $35), the time has come to get serious about Boswell's Johnson. I'm spending a week at our cabin on the Mississippi River with lots of reading time, so I've decided to dedicate myself to Jim and Sam (though of course I brought a shopping bag full of alternative books in case I don't make it. I have looked at it longingly from time to time.)

Have you seen the size of the book? It's one of those great massive Penguin Classics, 1245 pages. It was published in 1791, and at first glance seems impenetrable. Smallish typeface, oddly archaic stylistic flourishes, many long poetic digressions, tons of footnotes (more on that later), and appendix upon appendix. This is not a book for the literary faint of heart. But I've made the plunge, and though a mere 185 pages in, I can file a brief report from the front. (And these notes must be taken as tentative until I actually finish. Daniel chides me for so often raving about a book, demanding that he drop everything and read it when I'm on page 25, only to turn against it by page 200.)

So here are my first three impressions:

1) The structure begins to evolve from your enemy to your friend as the book unfolds. The notes in the back are actually helpful- there's a glossary I discovered (100 pages in, I should have seen it earlier but I was afraid to go back there) which explains each and every personage who is mentioned. There are hundreds, impossible to keep track of them all. And the footnotes, though elaborate and long, can either be ignored, or, once you start paying attention, read with pleasure as well. They remind me very much in places of David Foster Wallace's digressions in Infinite Jest. Boswell can't leave a single thread unpursued. Did I mention that this is a very funny book?

2) Gee whiz facts: booksellers used to be publishers! Much of the work that Johnson published in the mid 18th century was a result of cutting deals directly with booksellers, who paid him a flat advance and then printed and sold the books. If his costs outran his advance, as they often did, too bad. Also no agents. Johnson had a series of publications, issued once or twice a week with names like "The Rambler" and "The Idler," that were shockingly akin to present-day blogs. A reader would subscribe to them, they were published several times a week, and he'd receive them by mail, which was delivered several times a day. The "postings" (that's what they seem like) were about everything and nothing, whatever popped into Johnson's very smart head that day. They were raw and unedited, and he bragged about not even reading them after setting them down. Like most bloggers, he had to push himself to keep feeding the beast. "This year I hope to learn diligence," he noted once in a diary, and another time "I bid farewell to Sloth!." Second that!

3) There's an amazingly contemporary-sounding debate about copyright and intellectual property ethics. (in one of those dense footnotes, good thing I started scanning them). It's 1759, and Johnson is incensed that he's noticed some of his writing from The Rambler in other, unauthorized publications, for which, of course, he isn't compensated. He's outraged, and warns that "those who have been busy with their sickles in the fields of their neighbors are henceforward to take notice, that the time of impunity is at an end." Sounds familiar.

More to come.....

John Eklund

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