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Posted March 27, 2000
In college, I had the pleasure of spending an entire semester studying Samuel Johnson. During the course of this semester, I managed to work my through the entirety of Boswell's Life of Johnson, due mainly to a strict regimen of daily readings. Despite sickness and the claims of college life, I made it all the way through, cover to cover. No one else in the class did the same. Interestingly, I found myself to be the only one in the class who didn't enjoy the book. Perhaps this is because Boswell's biography is not meant to be read like a novel, but rather noted as an historical document. Unfortunately, it falls short even as that. Boswell's Life of Johnson is an ambitious, almost epic chronicling of the minutiae of only that portion of Johnson's life spent with Boswell. Almost no information is given about Johnson's life before 40, and every word spoken by the man is treated by the author as if it were manna from heaven. Boswell's jealousy of Johnson's other friends, most notably Hester Thrale, the woman who released her own biography of Johnson before Boswell's was completed, causes one to doubt at times the author's commitment to the truth. Impressive as the book's detail might be, it amounts to little more than a camera-acurate portrayal of one man's dinner parties. As primary source material for some other, more gifted biographer, however, there is no book more useful.
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