Samuel Johnson Is Indignant


Lydia Davis's first major collection of stories, Break It Down (1986), a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, was described as "A magnetic collection of stories" (Booklist), "Strong, seemingly effortless, and haunting work" (Kirkus Reviews), and "Amazing" (The Village Voice). The stories, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, "attest to the author's gift as an observer and archivist of emotion."

Davis's next book, The End of the Story, was called "A remarkably original ...

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Samuel Johnson Is Indignant

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Lydia Davis's first major collection of stories, Break It Down (1986), a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, was described as "A magnetic collection of stories" (Booklist), "Strong, seemingly effortless, and haunting work" (Kirkus Reviews), and "Amazing" (The Village Voice). The stories, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, "attest to the author's gift as an observer and archivist of emotion."

Davis's next book, The End of the Story, was called "A remarkably original and successful novel" by The London Review of Books, as "Near perfection" by The New Yorker, and "Breathlessly elegant and unsentimental" by Rick Moody.

Almost No Memory, her next collection of stories, was named one of the Voice Literary Supplement's 25 Favorite Books of 1997 and one of the Los Angeles Times's 100 Best Books of 1997. Said the Washington Post Book World, "Lydia Davis's new collection justifies the critical acclaim."

Now, in Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, Davis continues her sometimes harrowing, often witty, always meticulous and honest narrative investigations into such urgent and endlessly complex concerns as boring friends, Marie Curie, neighbors, lawns, marriage, jury duty, Christianity, ethics, selfishness, failing health, old age, funeral parlors, war, Scotland, dictionaries, children, and the problematic vehicle by which such concerns are most often conveyed -- language itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
To herald a Davis book as "the usual" may sound like faint praise, but the writer's loyal fans know that it is anything but. In this latest collection, Davis (Almost No Memory; The End of the Story) doesn't disappoint: the 56 stories paragraph-long meditations, stories in sections and humorous one-liners showcase the wordplay and distillation of meaning that have become her stylistic hallmarks, offering up crisp twists on familiar themes. In "The Meeting," a woman's corporate encounter sparks an internal identity crisis and rant; the childbearing conundrum is nailed in "A Double Negative." Relationships are probed in stories ranging from "Old Mother and the Grouch," with its fancifully imagined characters, to the brief "Finances," which gives voice to the messy issue of domestic equality. There are riffs on mown lawns and the use of the word "cremains" by a funeral parlor, and spooled-out ponderings on domestic priorities, selfishness and boring friends. Communication and language are paramount in Davis's world: an elderly man searches for his brother a language researcher in a hostile environment in "In a Northern Country," and a one-sided question-and-answer session in "Jury Duty" is the more revealing for what is omitted. The title story is an example of the author's famous one-liners that provide initial quick humor, then cause the reader to think again. And a longer story about Marie Curie, told in sections, fascinates with its interior imaginings. Eclectic and astute, Davis continues to find new ways to tell us the things we need to know. (Oct.) Forecast: Davis attracts a cultish core audience, and the low price of this hardcover title should make it an attractive impulse purchase.Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Translator, novelist, and short-fiction specialist Davis (Almost No Memory, 1997, etc.) assembles another fine collection of 54 wry, haunting pieces, old and new, brief and long, nearly all previously published. The title story is indicative of Davis's humor, appending to "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant" only this: "that Scotland has so few trees." Most of the remaining pieces offer a bit more. In "Old Mother and the Grouch," one of several tales concerning quietly desperate married life, an older couple grouse and bicker their way through meals, phone calls, and lovemaking, all the while intimating that they'd be hard-pressed to survive alone. An equally prominent theme is that of women under duress, exemplified in "Thyroid Diary" by a professor's wife and translator with an underactive thyroid whose thought processes seem to be slowing and unraveling, wreaking havoc on her work and daily routines but somehow opening her up to the joys of etymology. From an earlier period of Davis's writing come stories with an eastern European flair and Kafkaesque quality: "In a Northern Country" describes a frail old man who journeys in search of his missing brother to a remote village where, surrounded by fearful strangers, he becomes sickened to the point of death. Outsiders, self-doubt, and alienation: all form the bedrock upon which Davis sets up an off-kilter, edgy universe distinctly her own.
From the Publisher

"Highly intelligent, wildly entertaining stories, bound by visionary, philosophical, comic prose-part Gertrude Stein, part Simone Weil, and pure Lydia Davis."—Elle

"Davis should be counted among the true originals of contemporary American short fiction."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Davis deploys her gift for verbal bemusement, annoyance, and high anxiety . . . [and] converts her characters' complex ruminations into narratives full of insight and pleasure."—The Village Voice

"Her stories are intellectual and playful, and rigorous as brainteasers."—Bookforum

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780970335593
  • Publisher: McSweeney's Publishing
  • Publication date: 10/28/2001
  • Pages: 201
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Lydia Davis is the author of the story collections Almost No Memory (Picador, 2001) and Break it Down, and the novel The End of the Story. She has won the Guggenheim, the Lannan Foundation Award, the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Award and a Chevalier from the French government.

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Read an Excerpt


By Lydia Davis

McSweeney's Books

Copyright © 1976-2001 Lydia Davis.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0970335598

Chapter One

We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.

She hated a mown lawn. Maybe that was because mow was the reverse of wom, the beginning of the name of what she was—a woman. A mown lawn had a sad sound to it, like a long moan. From her, a mown lawn made a long moan. Lawn had some of the letters of man, though the reverse of man would be Nam, a bad war. A raw war. Lawn also contained the letters of law. In fact, lawn was a contraction of lawman. Certainly a lawman could and did mow a lawn. Law and order could be seen as starting from lawn order, valued by so many Americans. More lawn could be made using a lawn mower. A lawn mower did make more lawn. More lawn was a contraction of more lawmen. Did more lawn in America make more lawmen in America? Did more lawn make more Nam? More mown lawn made more long moan, from her. Or a lawn mourn. So often, she said, Americans wanted more mown lawn. All of America might be one long mown lawn. A lawn not mown grows long, she said: better a long lawn. Better a long lawn and a mole. Let the lawman have the mown lawn, she said. Or the moron, the lawn moron.

They have moved to the country. The country is nice enough: there are quail sitting in the bushes and frogs peeping in the swamps. But they are uneasy. They quarrel more often. They cry, or she cries and he bows his head. He is pale all the time now. She wakes in a panic at night, hearing him sniffle. She wakes in a panic again, hearing a car go up the driveway. In the morning there is sunlight on their faces but mice are chattering in the walls. He hates the mice. The pump breaks. They replace the pump. They poison the mice. Their neighbor's dog barks. It barks and barks. She could poison the dog.

    "We're city people," he says, "and there aren't any nice cities to live in."

In her fantasies about other men, as she grew older, about men other than her husband, she no longer dreamed of sexual intimacy, as she once had, perhaps for revenge, when she was angry, perhaps out of loneliness, when he was angry, but only of an affection and a profound sort of understanding, a holding of hands and a gazing into eyes, often in a public place like a café. She did not know if this change came out of respect for her husband, for she did truly respect him, or out of plain weariness, at the end of the day, or out of a sense of what activity she could expect from herself, even in a fantasy, now that she was a certain age. And when she was particularly tired, she couldn't even manage the affection and the profound understanding, but only the mildest sort of companionship, such as being in the same room alone together, sitting in chairs. And it happened that as she grew older still, and more tired, and then still older, and still more tired, another change occurred and she found that even the mildest sort of companionship, alone together, was now too vigorous to sustain, and her fantasies were limited to a calm sort of friendliness among other friends, the sort she really could have had with any man, with a clear conscience, and did in fact have with many, who were friends of her husband's too, or not, a friendliness that gave her comfort and strength, at night, when the friendships in her waking life were not enough, or had not been enough by the end of the day. And so these fantasies came to be indistinguishable from the reality of her waking life, and should not have been any sort of betrayal at all. Yet because they were fantasies she had alone, at night, they continued to feel like some sort of betrayal, and perhaps, because approached in this spirit of betrayal, as perhaps they had to be, to be any comfort and strength, continued to be, in fact, a sort of betrayal.


We live near a tribe of bloodless white people. Day and night they come to steal things from us. We have put up tall wire fences but they spring over them like gazelles and grin fiendishly up at us where we stand looking out of our windows. They rub the tops of their heads until their thin flaxen hair stands up in tufts, and they strut back and forth over our gravel terrace. While we are watching this performance, others among them have crept into our garden and are furtively taking our roses, stuffing them into bags which hang from their naked shoulders. They are pitifully thin, and as we watch them we become ashamed of our fence. Yet when they go, slipping away like white shadows in the gloom, we grow angry at the devastation they have left among our Heidelbergs and Lady Belpers, and resolve to take more extreme measures against them. It is not always the roses they come for, but sometimes—though the countryside for miles is covered with boulders and shards of stone—they carry away the very rocks from our woods, and walking out in the morning we find the ground pitted with hollows where pale bugs squirm blindly down into the earth.

Excerpted from SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT by Lydia Davis. Copyright © 1976-2001 by Lydia Davis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Boring Friends 1
A Mown Lawn 2
City People 3
Betrayal 4
The White Tribe 6
Our Trip 7
Special Chair 12
Certain Knowledge from Herodotus 14
Priority 15
The Meeting 17
Companion 21
Blind Date 22
Examples of Remember 28
Old Mother and the Grouch 29
Samuel Johnson Is Indignant 44
New Year's Resolution 45
First Grade: Handwriting Practice 47
Interesting 48
Happiest Moment 50
Jury Duty 51
A Double Negative 66
The Old Dictionary 67
Honoring the Subjunctive 71
How Difficult 72
Losing Memory 73
Letter to a Funeral Parlor 74
Thyroid Diary 76
Information from the North Concerning the Ice 92
Murder in Bohemia 93
Happy Memories 94
They Take Turns Using a Word They Like 98
Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman 99
Mir the Hessian 119
My Neighbors in a Foreign Place 121
Oral History (with Hiccups) 125
The Patient 127
Right and Wrong 129
Alvin the Typesetter 130
Special 137
Selfish 138
My Husband and I 140
Spring Spleen 141
Her Damage 142
Working Men 145
In a Northern Country 146
Away from Home 167
Company 168
Finances 170
The Transformation 171
Two Sisters (II) 173
The Furnace 176
Young and Poor 192
The Silence of Mrs. Iln 193
Almost Over: Separate Bedrooms 199
Money 200
Acknowledgement 201
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