Finished reading this book. It was so big. And it was so good. What’s funny about THE LIFE OF JOHNSON is that it’s so long that it actually says everything that needs to be said about itself. For instance, I found the extracts from Johnson’s letters to be really, really boring, and, then, late in the book, Boswell quotes Johnson saying something like, “I hate this practice of publishing peoples’ letters. That’s why I endeavor to write my letters in as boring a style as possible, so no one will ever be tempted to publish them.”
Another fun piece of self-comment is when one of Johnson’s biographers and friends says something like, “Any life of Johnson must merely be a record of conversations, for, aside from writing, the only thing Johnson ever did was talk.”
That’s all the book is. It’s a bunch of his letters, and then a bunch of conversations that he had.
He was quite a talker. And they talked about such diverse and interesting things. There was a lot of gossip, and plenty of politics. But also questions of general principle and religion. There were oftentimes musings on various issues. Over the course of a single night, they’d have such free-wheeling conversations, it’s amazing. And it made me realize that my own conversation is impoverished in comparison.
Johnson put it best. He said that gentlemen shouldn’t just ask a bunch of questions in conversation, because it’s not polite.
That, though, is what we default to: interviewing people. Really, though, the challenge is to find a stimulating topic: something upon which everyone has the desire and ability to contribute. I’ve spent so many years trying to figure out the best ways of doing this, and I’m still not amazing at it. Part of it is just fighting against the general tendency to lapse into questioning. But the other part of it is a problem of imagination. I need to think more about what subjects are fit for conversation. There has to be more out there than just work and politics and how high the rent is.