Books and reading: your weekly Johnson post

I’ve come across a number of passages in Boswell’s Life of Johnson on books and reading that I thought you might like. For those of you with large libraries, there’s this passage:

Dr. Johnson advised me today to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. “What you read then, (said he,) you will remember; but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a chance if you have again a desire to study it.” He added, “If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination.”

Here’s justification for having a book on hand, just in case! Have as many books around you as you can, because you just never know! I do like the idea that we’ll remember things better if we read about them right away when we get the impulse — if I’m curious about something I should read it now rather than waiting until I’ve read all the things I’ve got planned to read first. Although I’m susceptible to reading plans and complicated programs of instruction, I should probably make sure I’m willing to set them aside when they lose their interest. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think there must be a middle ground here, because surely there’s something to be said for learning something methodically rather than always following the whim of the moment. But the method can’t outlast a reader’s ability to profit from it.

And Johnson has more to say about reading and education:

“I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good. I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal, when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get better books afterwards.”

I like this idea. To have learned that reading can be fun is the first thing, and once a person has learned that, then they can learn how to have fun with more complicated kinds of reading. I have come across the idea a number of times recently that to say “it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you are reading” isn’t true — that it does matter what you read and reading easier kinds of things like commercial fiction isn’t just as good as other, more challenging kinds of reading. I feel ambivalently about all this, being uncertain what is meant by “good” reading and what it is we’re talking about that matters so much. I’m certain Johnson wouldn’t say that any kind of reading is always just as good as any other kind of reading, but he does recognize that very often people need to go through a period of reading regardless of quality. Johnson sees this trashier kind of reading as a stage one progresses through; I don’t see it as a stage one necessarily has to pass through or that it’s even a stage at all (a person can read lighter things alongside heavier ones), but I do agree that the enjoyment a person feels while reading any sort of book is a thing to be celebrated.

And about the glut of books out there available for us to read, Johnson says this:

“It has been maintained that this superfetation, this teeming of the press in modern times, is prejudicial to good literature, because it obliges us to read so much of what is of inferiour value, in order to be in the fashion; so that better works are neglected for want of time, because a man will have more gratification of his vanity in conversation, from having read modern books, than from having read the best works of antiquity. But it must be considered that we have now more knowledge generally diffused; all our ladies read now, which is a great extension. Modern writers are the moons of literature; they shine with reflected light, with light borrowed from the ancients.”

It amuses me to think that complaints about the overwhelming multitudes of books waiting for us to read them have existed for a long, long time. We so often think our complaints and worries are brand new. Women readers are apparently the answer to the 18C problem, another amusing thought; I suppose the more readers exist, the more likely it is that someone will be appreciating those ancient works in danger of neglect.

It’s comforting to know that we are not the only ones who have struggled with the problem of what to read first — that brand new book we can brag about having read at a party or that classic we have been meaning to get to forever.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

7 responses to “Books and reading: your weekly Johnson post

  1. These are great quotes. I thought of you and Johnson today as I was finishing the Maugham book I was reading as one of the character talks about reading him, too! I feel better now to have all those book piles (that I have been so worried about weeding lately)–see–I can pick up any number of books as the desire strikes me! The last quote is great, too. I guess we aren’t the only ones who worry about reading all the popular new fiction instead of the classics–it seems everyone had a tough time balancing it out. I wonder if any of those “popular novels” are our classics today?!


  2. Yay for having lots of books around. If someone such as Johnson says it’s necessary then by golly, I must not contradict him 🙂 And that last quote made me laugh. Definitely evidence of “the more things change the more they remain the same.”


  3. This is great! A bona fide excuse for my teetering piles! His concern about the masses of books being published just shows how all things are relative.I like Danielle’s thought about whether ‘any of those “popular novels” are our classics today?!’ Wouldn’t it be great to know? And also to know which books he despised.


  4. Thanks again for the Johnson quotes. I’m always happy to see them and your comments on them.

    Ever since I started blogging occasionally about literature, I’ve been plagued by a sense that I won’t be accepted in the “litblogosphere” because I’m not a ravenous consumer of contemporary literature. Your post serves as a double dose against that sensation–you’re making relevant reflections on material that’s been around a long time, and that material itself bears on the problem.


  5. LK

    Sam sounds like my kinda guy. Thank you for the quotes.


  6. I think you’re absolutely right, Danielle, that the “popular” stuff of the 18C — novels — are now our classics. People didn’t really take novels as serious literature at the time and they were worried about people wasting their time on them. Johnson himself said that Tristram Shandy wouldn’t last — and he was wrong!

    Stefanie — Johnson is most definitely not someone to be contradicted 🙂

    Equiano, that last quotation came out of a conversation on Pope; someone was commenting that Pope wasn’t getting as much attention anymore, now that he’s dead, and Johnson then started talking about how people feel pressure to read what’s new. He would probably feel happy to know that people still read Pope today. As well as Tristram Shandy, Johnson really didn’t like Fielding, another author we’d consider a “classic” today.

    Amos, I like blogs that deal with older literature; some of them inspire me to read things I might not otherwise. I’ve found that quite a lot of bloggers whose blogs are like reading diaries read a wide variety of stuff, and those are the ones I like best.

    LK, you’re welcome 🙂


  7. I’m thoroughly enjoying your quotes and comments on Johnson, all of which have furthered my interest in reading The Life of Samuel Johnson. So we have it on authority now that surrounding oneself with books is the way to go and three cheers for women who read, no matter what it is 🙂


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