Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Life of Samuel Johnson” as Want to Read:
The Life of Samuel Johnson
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Life of Samuel Johnson

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  3,162 ratings  ·  244 reviews
In Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, one of the towering figures of English literature is revealed with unparalleled immediacy and originality, in a biography to which we owe much of our knowledge of the man himself. Through a series of richly detailed anecdotes, Johnson emerges as a sociable figure, vigorously engaging and fencing with great contemporaries such as Garrick ...more
Paperback, 1408 pages
Published October 30th 2008 by Penguin Classics (first published 1790)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Life of Samuel Johnson, please sign up.
Popular Answered Questions
Bruce Grossman This book has everything in it! History, poetry, religion, political science, society, humor, law, etc. etc. . . . and especially human nature--- it e…moreThis book has everything in it! History, poetry, religion, political science, society, humor, law, etc. etc. . . . and especially human nature--- it exudes human warmth and more than a book is a companion you can always turn to for entertainment and enlightenment. Reading this book will make you smarter, and probably better, too.(less)

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.92  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,162 ratings  ·  244 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Life of Samuel Johnson
Paul Bryant
Sep 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Roy Lotz
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 y
W.D. Clarke
Oct 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favourites, 18c, 2019
Whew! Nearly four months, already? The thing about insanely long books like this one (1300pp of tiny, tiny type!) is that if you have at most an hour or two to read each day, you really do live with them over time and they become almost a part of the family. You have your little spats with them, they say the most insane or embarrassing things sometimes, but deep down you feel this unbreakable connection and find that you can't do without them, and as I imagine my mom saying to us at Xmas (paraph ...more
Aug 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
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
Dec 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 25, 2013 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
Douglas Wilson
Nov 27, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, history
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
Jul 16, 2012 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
Mar 27, 2008 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.
Actually, I dip in and out of this one (over 30 years!) and I find it delightful & very funny. ...more
Nov 12, 2008 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 05, 2012 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
Jacob Aitken
This is a great book about a great man, albeit not written by a great man.  I started reading this in 2016, I think.  C. S. Lewis recommends approaching it as “lunch literature.”  This does not mean it is light reading, however.  It is conversational reading, but in these conversations Johnson reveals a remarkable dexterity of mind.

There are several key events in Johnson’s life. One key event is the publishing of his Dictionary.  Age 46: Published the Dictionary.  Received MA in 1755. Another tu
Jeff Miller
Jan 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really wasn't expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. Just one of those classics I hadn't got around to. I really like how Boswell chronicles Johnson's life detailing the positive and the negative. Boswell is so in awe of his friend but does not shade his flaws. Making you wish you had known and interacted with him yourself.
Aug 09, 2007 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
Will Miller
Jun 18, 2009 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.
Valerie Kyriosity
Dr. Johnson is a new old friend. I loved Boswell's love for him, which was genuine through and through, even when confronting his faults. Johnson knew everybody and thought about everything. Much of his thinking was on target, but some was wide of the mark. All of it came from a remarkably capable mind and was expressed with a rhetorical skill that has had few equals. His piety was strong and genuine. Sadly, one of his errors was a conviction that we cannot be assured of our salvation, so he was ...more
Jun 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Reading this book was like spending time talking to a good friend who is curious, interested in new ideas, gives odd twists to old ones, is original in his thoughts, a person you look forward to seeing. The book is loosely organized chronologically so I read it over a period of months, a few pages at a time – no problem of forgetting what I had read as every entry is on a new topic. To read more than that would be overloading your mind, and in fact on a few occasions Boswell complains of that, c ...more
May 03, 2014 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
May 26, 2012 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
Jan 10, 2012 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
Jan 11, 2013 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.
Apr 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The ultimate non-fiction book. Just plain great. For me, this is beach-reading.
May 10, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, classics
This is a very famous book. And quite a good one. But I am mighty glad that I read an abbridged edition. It is, as everyone knows not really a biography. More a collection of witticisms. And there really are a lot. But you do have to find them. So reading this is a bit like reading pornography, you hunt for the juicy parts. It is all there, the refutation of Berkeley, patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel, hell that is paved with good intentions, that no man is obliged to do what he can ...more
Sep 02, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
Finished: 02.09.2018
Genre: biography
Rating: B-

"Dictionaries are like watches.
The worst is better than none, and
the best cannot be expected to go quite true"
#Classic.....but a very long read!


Lisa (Harmonybites)
Jun 10, 2013 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
Alan Lindsay
Nov 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This is a book I've had on my list for thirty years and always balked at because it seemed to be a hodge-podge of a biography, all the material for a biography thrown together and hardly edited at all. How can an unedited life be compelling? Turns out it IS compelling precisely because it is such a slightly ordered regurgitation of whatever Boswell had at hand. Listen to Johnson discourse on everything that mattered to him, everything that mattered in the age--Slavery, America, Salvation, fear o ...more
Jun 22, 2020 added it
"why sir, do you read books through?" &c. ...more
Jun 10, 2013 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
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Textual history of The Life of Samuel Johnson 3 13 May 08, 2014 01:25PM  
Books I've Been Meaning to Read All My Adult Life 2 34 Mar 31, 2013 08:35AM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • America's Daughter (Dancing Soul Trilogy, #2)
  • The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age
  • Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More
  • The Autobiography Of Benvenuto Cellini
  • The Lives of the Artists
  • Humboldt's Gift
  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy
  • "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity
  • La educación de Henry Adams
  • Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley
  • The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
  • Heavy: An American Memoir
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
  • Virginia Woolf
  • How Late It Was, How Late
  • Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia
See similar books…
James Boswell, 10th Laird of Auchinleck and 1st Baronet 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 Johnson’s biographer, inherited h ...more

Related Articles

The Great Migration was the movement of six million African Americans out of the South to urban areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1...
28 likes · 3 comments
“It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.” 29 likes
“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.” 19 likes
More quotes…