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The Life of Samuel Johnson

3.90  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,440 Ratings  ·  162 Reviews
The most celebrated English biography is a group portrait in which extraordinary man paints the picture of a dozen more

At the centre of a brilliant circle which included Burke, Reynolds, Garrick, Fanny Burney and even George III, Boswell captures the powerful, troubled and witty figure of Samuel Johnson, who towers above them all. Yet this is also an intimate picture of do
Paperback, 384 pages
Published August 30th 1979 by Penguin Classics (first published 1790)
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Paul Bryant
Jul 20, 2013 Paul Bryant rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: johnsoniana
This is a book which is not about a thing but is the thing itself. I think there’s a complicated German philosophical term for that.

In the history books they will tell you Samuel Johnson is dead these 200 years, but I say No Sir. He’s alive, here, right here. He’s walking and talking and wringing the necks of fools right here.

In this book’s oceanic vastness of pages Boswell the drunk, the fool, the butt of japes, the ignoble toady, creates the reality tv of 18th century London. There are verbat
Dec 28, 2013 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Samuel Johnson was one of the great figures of 18th Century England. As a poet, critic, and literary jack-of-all-trades, he would become a great innovator (particularly in the genre of biography) as well as a devoted assimilator of the fading Augustan tradition, favouring abstraction and a high moral tone to the burgeoning realism of his day. Often pegged as a stout Tory with tightly buckled beliefs and an awful quip reserved for anyone daring enough to contradict him, the jury is still out on w ...more
May 23, 2016 umberto rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, favorites
I walked to visit Dr. Johnson's House at 17 Gough Square, London in England on July 5, 1997 in the evening alone. I also bought this great biography there (10.99 pounds) and had since kept reading off and on till I reached its final page on November 5, 2001. I had known this book since my early teens and thus I have my own respect for Dr. Johnson for his humility with his literary brilliance as well as his fame and recognition from the Universities of Dublin and Oxford with the two honorary doct ...more
Justin Evans
I might be too exhausted from reading the thing to write a proper review. Just holding it takes a toll on my sub-ganymedic upper body.

The first thing to note is that I'd much rather read more Boswell than read more of Johnson's letters. Boswell's writing is like that of eighteenth century philosophers: totally unselfconscious, they simply say what they mean. Later theoreticians will undermine a lot of it, and try to find latent contradictions and so on, but the fact is that most people are a pl
Douglas Wilson
Nov 27, 2014 Douglas Wilson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography
I recently included a "bucket book" in my line-up of books I am reading. These are books I really ought to have read by this time in my life, but which, alas, I have not. This book, The Life of Samuel Johnson, was the first in this roster that I have completed. Having done so, it continues to strike me as a really good idea.

Boswell mentions near the end of the book that those who took the time to read "may be considered as well acquainted with him." I think this is quite true, and gaining the ac
May 16, 2016 Lotz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Life of Samuel Johnson is many things: charming, witty, vivacious, absorbing, edifying, beautiful; part philosophy and part history, with some politics and religion on the side. It is ironic, then, that one of the few things it most definitely is not is a biography.

James Boswell was not interested in creating a record of Johnson’s life, but a portrait of his personality. As a result, Boswell rapidly plowed through the time of Johnson’s life that the two weren’t acquainted—the first fifty yea
Jul 22, 2015 Gwern rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
(Project Gutenberg 6-volume edition, edited by George Birkbeck Norman Hill; 7.3MB or ~1,200,000 words, which included Boswell's account of the Hebrides but also a decent chunk of the whole was footnotes which I skipped or indices or other such incidentals. This was a major reading project which took easily a month.)

It's a curious book. Samuel Johnson's dictionary was influential but totally obsoleted by the OED a century or two ago; his literature is little-read these days, and from what one rea
Jan 21, 2009 Eric marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I put this down around page 600 because I didn't think I had the time or attention to devote to all 1200 pages. That said, it's not arduous reading. Exceedingly pleasant, in fact. Richard Howard, in a poem somewhere, referred to the 'glossy carapace' of 18th century diction; Boswell, on his own and aided by copious extracts from Johnson and others, forms a treasure chest of elegantly turned utterance.
Nov 17, 2008 Brad rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: english-history
The best way to read Boswell's Life of Johnson is this way: via a somewhat cheesy, "classic library" volume of a Great Classics type of series. The book looks like one of those books you would find in the movie set of a lawyer's office, trying to look distinguished and old, although it feels plasticy.

We learn from other sources (outside of Boswell) that Boswell himself was something of an annoying 18th century star f__ker, but thank God he was - because reading this book is like being a part of
May 03, 2014 Robert rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When you major in what is called "English" at college, certain inconvenient figures present themselves. One is Ben Jonson who is inconvenient because it is so much more rewarding and taxing to spend your time on Shakespeare, although Jonson also was a major dramatist during Shakespeare's day.

Another inconvenient figure is William Blake, the poet often grouped with the "Romantics," but clearly not one of them and a study unto himself, sui generis, one of a kind. If you're going to study Blake, yo
Jul 05, 2012 Rozzer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Eclipse first, the rest nowhere. Yes, people, this is it. The BEST biography ever written anywhere in any language. You may not previously have made the acquaintance of Jamie or the good Doctor, but after having read this incredible work they will be your friends for life. It's true. Eighteenth Century London is long ago and, for most of us, far away. Few of us have ever known men to wear knee-pants and tricorne hats as these did, or even seen the huge, thirty-yard dress productions that the lad ...more
Will Miller
Jun 18, 2009 Will Miller rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Full of falsities. And it has probably done as much harm as good to our understanding of its remarkable subject. Still, it's very difficult not to love this book. What a hoot. Enjoy yourself - it's difficult not to. And take your time. But don't for a minute fool yourself into thinking this book is about Samuel Johnson.
Aug 09, 2007 Mishka rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: autobiosnbios
i've read half this book so far and, as with all terribly good, terribly long books that you don't rush through in one go, it's comforting to know that it's at home waiting for me. i'm looking forward to when i can open it up where i left off when life wasn't quite as crazy as it is now and continue giggling at boswell's madness. although the book is titled 'the life of samuel johnson', i am going to need to get a proper biography of the great doctor because i am completely distracted by boswell ...more
Mar 27, 2013 Roger rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reading Boswell's Life of Johnson is something I've long aspired to do, and now that I'm retired, I took the time to wade through it. I learned a great deal about the 18th century from Johnson (through Boswell), including fascinating insights into John Wesley, George Whitefield, and the Methodists, from Boswell's point of view. Worth a reading, if that century is of interest to you.
Lazarus P Badpenny Esq
Perhaps there is no greater indication of encroaching dotage than the excitement I feel towards the prospect of devouring Boswell's Life of Johnson.
Matthew Melton
Aug 03, 2015 Matthew Melton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This year's Big Summer Read (a personal tradition) was Boswell's Life of Johnson. I had been meaning to read the unabridged version for many years, but finally got it done. Now I'm wishing I had finished it long ago. What a wonderfully enriching experience! In 1791, James Boswell was tinkering with the relatively new literary genre of biography, something his mentor Johnson had done admirable work to establish. As a somewhat experimental work, it contains a little too much redundancy, a little t ...more
Apr 27, 2011 Kiof rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The ultimate non-fiction book. Just plain great. For me, this is beach-reading.
May 03, 2014 Robert rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The second volume of Boswell's life of Samuel Johnson portrays Johnson as a man who, although growing older, retains extraordinary vitality. In fact, Johnson by this point has ceased to write so much and begun to talk even more, always demonstrating a rapier-like personality, not full of opinions so much as reasoned judgments, never making a statement without quickly backing it up with one, two, or more justifications.

The Johnson here strikes me as almost Falstaffian, not in the bawdy sense, but
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Oct 20, 2013 Lisa (Harmonybites) rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: Good Reading: 100 Significant Books
This is an abridgment of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which as it is runs to over 500 pages. I am glad I read it, but I’m also glad I read an abridgment (an ebook downloaded for free from The Gutenberg Project). In the preface the editor tells us he “omitted most of Boswell’s criticisms, comments, and notes, all of Johnson’s opinions in legal cases, most of the letters, and parts of the conversation dealing with matters which were of greater importance in Boswell’s day than now.” I don’t kn ...more
Richard Bartholomew
May 05, 2016 Richard Bartholomew rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Boswell's epic chronicle is indulgent and idiosyncratic, but incredibly readable after more than 200 years. Boswell not only brings a version of Johnson to life (how accurately this version reflects the real thing is a matter of academic debate) - the accumulation of character observations, recurring themes, and miscellaneous anecotes and discussions immerse the reader in his entire milieu and the public intellectual life of the era. Among Johnson's associates, Oliver Goldsmith is particularly m ...more
Jun 11, 2013 Charles rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Here is an experiment in book reviewing. I can't add anything to the mass of opinion about Johnson. So al alternative:

1971-1972 Me and Samuel Johnson

In 1971, a division. The basics are in place, grown-up life is beginning. The ways of knowing are established (in 1971 I was still waiting on history) and their associated modes of production - how to write, compose, do philosophy are known in a preliminary fashion. The period of euphoric, youthful discovery is over: nine important authors in about
May 05, 2012 Paul rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Boswell’s Life of Johnson is one of the most famous biographies in the English language. Its subject is one of the most celebrated English men of letters. But oddly, a reader of this lengthy encomium might come away wondering exactly why Johnson is so celebrated.

In fact, it is a stretch to call this a biography at all. It does not paint a complete portrait of Johnson by any means. It does little to explicate his works or put them in the context of his life. What it does, is provide long successi
Douglas Dalrymple
Feb 06, 2013 Douglas Dalrymple rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is where I’ve spent most of my reading time the past few weeks. My first reading of Boswell’s Life of Johnson was, in fact, the reading of an abridgment. This time, I swallowed the whole 1,200 pages. I’m still digesting and may post something more here by way of a review in the days or weeks to come. For now, I’ll just say that I’m pretty sure Dr Johnson would dislike me. He doesn’t seem to have liked Americans at all (a bunch of vile Whigs!). I doubt whether I would have liked Dr Johnson e ...more
Mar 03, 2012 Ron rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Boswell's Life of Johnson is one of those books which learned people are told to read but few seldom do. Because of its availability through Project Guthenberg, I undertook to amend that deficiency in my own instance. (Okay, I give up, I can't think that way, let alone write it.)

Frankly, I almost quit due to both the antique style and Boswell's gushing hero worship, however I eventually got a feel for both and plunged on. It was worth it. Johnson was probably not an easy man to know. He certainl
Blake Nelson
Apr 02, 2013 Blake Nelson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of my all time favorite books. Read this in college and was devoted to it, ending my letters with longwinded salutations in the style of Boswell and Johnson, whose letters I read, when I'd finished this great book.

Weird that just in the time since then, the 1980s, enough has happened that this now feels more distant historically. And the slightly slow style--it's actually very quick and succinct compared to the writing style of the time--made it very hard to focus on.

I couldn't get very fa
I was reading this in daily installments sent by e-mail from Unfortunately, I found that to be an an abridged edition, plus it was proving hard to follow in e-mailed chunks, so I've since been reading it in book form. My biggest obstacle at this point is that there are so many dramatic personae that it's a little hard to follow, particularly given Boswell's habit of quoting long extracts from Johnson's letters. It's fueled my interest in the 18th century, though, and I'm doing some ...more
Randolph Carter
Greatest biography written bar none. Captures the nature of the man better than anything since. I wouldn't call it the best model for writing a biography, but it still is the finest one ever written. Never surpassed.
Dec 28, 2014 Bob rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: top100
There were some petty annoyances in the book. For example: Boswell often quoted Johnson entreating Boswell's wife to think better of him (Johnson) -- but the reason for the complaint was never explained. Also, Boswell seemed to go out of his way to explain away the brusque manner of Johnson, but the record (by Boswell) was full of examples of his brusqueness (even to Boswell). I also thought his (Boswell's) descriptions were too minute.

BUT ... to quote Boswell himself at the true end of the boo
Jul 02, 2014 JoAnna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
"The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal, may be considered as well acquainted with him." (1003)

I am by no means an expert, or even a seasoned reader of biographies, but I can attest that there is good reason why Boswell's epic chronicle of Samuel Johnson's life is considered a masterpiece. As an avid reader of anything by Jesuit Fr. James V. Schall, I was enticed to read this hefty book after encou
Gary Daly
Mar 30, 2014 Gary Daly rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I didn't get my BA Arts until I was well into my 30s but was fortunate enough to 'learn' about Samuel Johnson from the 'Blackadder The Third'TV series. Though, James Boswell's superb biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson was for me a rewarding reading experience. This biography published in 1791 captures the oppressive atmosphere whereby Johnson the subject and Boswell the scribe (they were close friends) spend decades on the verge of an existential explosion. Johnson's lifelong wait and fear of ...more
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Textual history of The Life of Samuel Johnson 3 11 May 08, 2014 01:25PM  
Books I've Been Meaning to Read All My Adult Life 2 34 Mar 31, 2013 08:35AM  
  • The Major Works
  • Brief Lives
  • Eminent Victorians
  • Memoirs of My Life
  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A Selection
  • The Autobiography Of Benvenuto Cellini
  • Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson
  • The Education of Henry Adams
  • Samuel Johnson
  • Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage
  • The Anglo Saxon Chronicle
  • Biographia Literaria: Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life & Opinions
  • The Prelude
  • Melville: His World and Work
  • The Temple: The Poetry of George Herbert
  • Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A Defense of One's Life)
  • Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
  • The History of England
James Boswell, 10th Laird of Auchinleck and 1st Baronet (October 29, 1740 - May 19, 1795) was a lawyer, diarist, and author born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the eldest son of a judge, Alexander Boswell, 8th Laird of Auchinleck and his wife Euphemia Erskine, Lady Auchinleck. Boswell's mother was a strict Calvinist, and he felt that his father was cold to him. Boswell, who is best known as Samuel ...more
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“Nay, Sir, it was not the WINE that made your head ache, but the SENSE that I put into it'
'What, Sir! will sense make the head ache?'
'Yes, Sir, (with a smile,) when it is not used to it.”
“He had no settled plan of life, nor looked forward at all, but merely lived from day to day. Yet he read a great deal in a desultory manner, without any scheme of study, as chance threw books in his way, and inclination directed him through them.” 12 likes
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