categories: Reading Under the Influence

Comments Off on Johnson-mania!

If you have peeked at my cartoon serial, Talking to Ghosts, you will already know that Walter Jackson Bate, the author of biographies of both Johnson and Keats, has been a huge influence on my life and art.  He was a great teacher and great man, and if he was somewhat kooky, his ability to marshal that kookiness, in Johnsonian fashion, made him all the greater.  (For “Benediction,” my essay on Bate, click here.)  There is not much more I can say about his monumental biography of Johnson except it is one of the books that would make my top 5 list, a book that I have read and re-read throughout my life, starting in college, and a book that has inspired me and steeled me for the often-unexpected difficulties of the writing life.  But to reduce its subject to “the writing life,” as opposed to life itself, is ridiculous.  As Johnson, and Bate, point out, the only reason writers demand our interest is that they are slightly crazier, more sensitive and thought-encumbered versions of other homo sapiens.  In both men’s work, “writers” sometimes stand in as simply more distilled versions of what it means to be human, that is to be creatures who often “live in idea,” rarely settling in the present moment but instead racing to the future or the past, always slightly ready to move to someplace—any place– other than where they are.

One way this tendency manifests itself in me is in the pleasure I take in reading introductions to or essays about some great work, instead of reading the work itself.  As a lover of Johnson, it is my dark secret that I have never read Boswell’s Life of Johnson. (Even though I was assigned it in Bate’s class in 1979.)   On the other hand, I have read Adam Sisman’s wonderful Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, which describes how Boswell went about writing his book.  What strikes me is how thoroughly modern Boswell’s task was, despite the fact he was writing in the 18th century, how modern both the method and repercussions were, too.  In fact, one of the pleasures of Sisman’s book is how it speaks to the current debates raging in the world of creative nonfiction, from the James Frey controversy and the recent David Shields “manifesto” as well as to the general cliché denigration of memoir as somehow “immoral.”  Boswell himself was shunned plenty after his book came out, in part because he had the audacity to record things that people had actually said, and to show them as they actually were, though there was plenty of fiction, and re-creation, mixed in with his “reporting.”  What animates Sisman’s book, other than the simple fact that it’s a great story of disciple and mentor, is making these connections between then and now.

Another book I returned to during the last few weeks was Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing by Paul Fussell.  I first read it when I was working in a bookstore in my 20s, before I’d published a word, and what struck me upon returning to it was how I had internalized, and subsequently taught, some of the ideas in it.  The primary idea, and the one that drives the book, is that originality is vastly overrated in our time, and that Johnson’s life demonstrates that it isn’t so much “being original,” but knowing the possible forms, the genres that writers can work in, that makes one a writer.  In less elegant terms than Fussell himself would use, I agree that that which we spew out of us has no shape until we find the appropriate vessel to put it in.  Johnson worked in almost every genre of his time, and it is in part his knowledge of those genres that made him as great and varied a writer as he was.  And how did he gain a knowledge of those genres?  The secret, which is no secret at all, is one I think the world in general, and my graduate students in particular, could benefit from:  reading.

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