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June 4, 2009

OGIC: The new world

I don't read many biographies outside of those written by co-bloggers. Most times I've tried, I've not gotten past the person's adolescence. It seems to me the genre's fatal flaw that, for the most part, biographers are stuck beginning at the beginning. People's early lives are seldom the part of their story that makes you want to read about them. As for literary biography, give me another journey through Middlemarch over a life of George Eliot any day. It's vanishingly rare to find a writer's biography that's half as interesting and revealing as the works of the writer himself--which brings us directly to the subject of the biography that I am, uncharacteristically, now reading.

I'm not reading Boswell, though. Instead I'm ankle-deep in Walter Jackson Bate's 1975 biography Samuel Johnson. Despite having majored in English lit and spent several years studying it as a graduate student, I never got much exposure to Johnson beyond the anthologized standards. He was a gentle giant looming just beyond my ken, still unexplored...deliberately? I may have taken some comfort in knowing that there was a vast, uncharted, by all accounts fantastic territory for me still to discover.

But last week a wave of curiosity washed over me and I pulled down the Bate volume that's been gathering dust on a bookshelf for years. I might do better to cut to the chase and read Boswell first; I don't know. But this was the book in the room with me when the urge struck; I know and like Bate's work on Keats; and Samuel Johnson did make a clean sweep of the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Pulitzer.

So far, so good. Even the story of Johnson's childhood, which is only sparsely documented, has a draw. The distinctive personality asserted itself early on. At this early stage, the aspect of that personality I'm most interested in is what Bate calls the inclination to indolence and this account of what sounds like the story of every paper I ever wrote in school, and most of my blog posts (hold your fire, I'm likening process, not results!):

One [quality] is the extraordinary, almost pathological "indolence" (to use his own word) into which he could increasingly fall--a subject of fundamental importance for understanding him psychologically...If it is not yet present in the degree we see later, it is on its way. In trying to overcome these rebellious lapses into indolence, he could work with extraordinary bursts of speed, which--in their result--would more than compensate for the delay. (Compensate, that is, in the eyes of others, not in his own; for he himself; judging these bursts of effort by motive rather than result, realized that they were primarily the product of impatience to get a thing over with and out of the way.) This was always to be true of him. One of the finest short discussions in English of idleness and procrastination (Rambler 134) was rapidly written in Sir Joshua Reynolds's parlor while the printer's boy, who had come to pick up copy of a new essay for the periodical, waited at the door.

It has not taken long for me to start adoring this man.

Posted June 4, 2009 7:06 AM

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