I started reading Pale Fire the other day because I was finding that for whatever reason, the time I spent reading during any day was very little. Often nothing. Part of the issue may be that we are as a planet in the as-yet uncontrolled midst of a global pandemic, and that the country that is doing the least about its own situation (the US) also is facing a threat to its democracy, and that country shares a border with my beloved Canada. That kind of thing can put you off “having a little read” while details from what Rachel Maddow reported on last night are swirling in your head a bit. Actually, I think the bigger contributing factor to my doing so little reading was that there is so little published that is truly great. Yes, granted, I am not on top of the publishing scene in English fiction all over the world, and, yes, granted, Pale Fire is a pretty high bar to set for comparisons — but still.

I’ve finished Kinbote’s odd introduction and am now in canto 2 of the equally and differently odd poem. It’s such a relief — the term I use is “palate cleanser” for a reading experience like this. It will just wash away so much other bad and mediocre fare I’ve started to read and given up on.

If you know the book, you know that it has (can I use the word “odd” again?) — an interesting epigraph. It’s a passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

Hodge was so important in his life that he has his own sculpture just outside Dr Johnson’s House in Bolt Court in London (photo by Elliott Brown (flickr)). There’s a shooting in Pale Fire as well, and a crazy man (or two), so

as with everything with Nabokov, there are no accidents and coincidences.

Today I finished the first advanced draft of the chapter of my book dealing with Sam’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays. I say “advanced” because my usual way of writing is to proceed systematically, trying to finesse each sentence and paragraph, and the whole flow, as I go, so that in the end I don’t have to go back and do a major re-writing. Of course, I’ll re-read and edit and also have a professional editor read it as well when the time comes, but it won’t be a “rough” draft in the sense of all my thoughts just thrown there, no attention to order or wording, with the plan for major revision later in the process.

In preparation for writing the chapter on Shakespeare, I read Sam’s proposal for the book — the announcement of what he planned to do and that it would be by subscription — and also the preface. The latter has a defensive and even snarky tone to it at times. He talks about the “stupidity, negligence, ignorance, and asinine tastelessness of the former editors,” and is particularly brutal with Lewis Theobald:

Of his notes I have generally retained those which he retained himself in his second edition, except when they were confuted by subsequent annotators, or were too minute to merit preservation. I have sometimes adopted his restoration of a comma, without inserting the panegyrick in which he celebrated himself for his achievement. The exuberant excrescence of diction I have often lopped, his triumphant exultations over Pope and Rowe I have sometimes suppressed, and his contemptible ostentation I have frequently concealed; but I have in some places shewn him, as he would have shewn himself, for the reader’s diversion, that the inflated emptiness of some notes may justify or excuse the contraction of the rest.

So, so much for Johnson on Shakespeare for now. I’ll next likely be moving on to the chapter on the dictionary.

For the past ten years or so I have been involved in two writing projects. Both are biographies. One of course is the one I am writing about Samuel Johnson and to which most of the posts on this blog are dedicated. This September 18 marks the 311th anniversary of his birth. I have the full superstructure of the book worked out and I have written several chapters and long passages that are “complete” in the sense that they are not just notes or ideas thrown into place, but I hope to have to edit (and have an editor edit) the writing very little once I move to that stage. And I also have most of my research done and in place in the superstructure so that it’s ready for me to “write it.”

I’ve also been having some fun on the side (which is a bad thing to say if you are married, which I am not). It started with this cubist take on Johnson which I commissioned a few years ago (after Joshua Reynolds). More recently, I’ve created a line of greeting cards based on quotations from Johnson and supported with illustrations and paintings from several very talented and creative people. Take a look at Sam Johnson Cards.

But September is also a sad time for me, especially this September we are currently in, because of the subject of the other biography that has occupied so much of my time the last few years — one I co-wrote with Matt Balaker about standup comedian Greg Giraldo. The 29th will mark the tenth anniversary of his death from an accidental prescription drug overdose in a New Jersey hotel room. Matt and I have created a tribute page to mark the occasion (take a look at Greg Giraldo Remembered) and it’s been heartening to see how some people in the comedy world have been happy to support us. One professional illustrator gave us a design and didn’t charge us for it. Another comedian agreed to an interview. And various people contributed photos (have a look at the “Gallery” section).

Likely not many 18th-century scholars have heard of Giraldo, let alone seen him perform (or read a terrific biography about him!). For those who know his work though — I joke with my co-author Matt that he and I are now the top Giraldo scholars in the world — they know that he is one of the best standup comedians of all time. Not bad for a kid from Queens who also graduated from Harvard Law School.

My tastes in literature and my opinions about it developed in a series of working class houses headed by my mother, a single mom who worked as a waitress and sometimes the bakery salesperson at Woolworth’s. She exercised absolutely no checks or restrictions on what I read. This doesn’t mean that I spent my time rifling through Playboy nor reading Plato. But the freedom was wonderful, though of course I didn’t realize that at the time as a pre-teen and teen growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in a small city in Newfoundland. I read average stuff which had at least the benefit of helping me develop a habit of reading and a familiarity with and interest in words. Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, Book of the Month Club, the Hardy Boys. But there were much more significant events, too, like my exposure to Nabokov’s Lolita when I was, I think, in my late teens, and had never read or been affected before by a book like that.

The freedom to read also led to efforts at doing my own writing, and that was also encouraged by my mother. She didn’t read or critique anything I wrote, but she bought me a blue manual typewriter and a typing table, thus facilitating anything I might want to type on paper. It still pains me a little today that in the zealous throes of minimalist cleansing about 30 years ago, I donated that typewriter and its carrying case to a thrift shop.

I finished high school and then went to university to study English literature, where my great influence was the great scholar and general man of letters, Patrick O’Flaherty, in whose class I was first introduced to Samuel Johnson. I graduated with a BA(Hons) and gradually lost contact with Patrick, except for an idea about Johnson that I took with me when I headed to grad school for my MA: his contention that Johnson’s Rambler essays were disorganized, which I didn’t agree with at all. That became the main idea I based my thesis on. I reconnected with Patrick several years ago, and even had lunch with him in St. John’s when I was visiting family, and he was still exuberant about Johnson and in addition still also keen to help me with the biography of Johnson that I am writing. (Tragically, Patrick died from drowning three years ago this month.)

At grad school I was studying mostly Johnson, Swift, and textual (and other) bibliography, and though I was young (a mere 20 when I started) and lacked confidence, I enjoyed it pretty thoroughly. I also took a class given by the great literary critic Northrop Frye and his ideas about literature — about it being a structure of words, about offensive literature not being “wrong” but simply what satirists sometimes do, and his grand division in Anatomy of Criticism of essentially all of Western literature into broad categories — all these have continued with me.

I don’t know whether I have become frozen in time, but the literary ideas of Frye and the writing of Nabokov continue today (when I am a less mere 60) and are probably the greatest influences on what I feel and believe about literature. Frye once said “everybody has a certain number of ideas built in, like eggs in a female,” so maybe it’s natural for any person to fixate or not be able to shake the hold that certain ideas have on them. Though I still feel a bit sheepish when I bring up either writer yet again when I am talking to friends and others about writing.

Ever since I finished my thesis on the Rambler and received my MA nearly 40 years ago now, I have to one or extent or another been studying and reading Johnson and about Johnson. After I finished co-writing a biography of standup comedian Greg Giraldo last year, I had learned enough from that exellent experience to change (or sharpen) the focus of my book about Johnson a bit. I don’t remember my original concept and work on it — which the Giraldo book effectively put a “pause” on for about four years — but now I see it pretty clearly. It was never to be a scholarly biography but now I’ve gone even further away from that and am even more intent on producing a very “user-friendly” biography of Johnson, solidly based in others’ scholarship, but thinking even more about the general reader — both the one who knows about Johnson a bit, and the one who has to be convinced that a bio of a writer who lived three centuries ago is worth reading at all. I had an exchange with two folks on Twitter last week who were talking about the difference between a thesis and a book. Kristen Alexander said that “a thesis proves how clever you are to a few equally clever readers & a book entertains/informs a non-specialist reader.” Katie Barclay’s variant was that “a thesis is an exam where you have to show your working, but with a book we trust you’ve done the work so you can contentrate on the narrative.” I tweeted back that both of their takes reflect what I am trying to do with My Sam Johnson.

One of the people I’ve interviewed for my book is Robert St-Louis, who studies horology (clock- and watch-making) and has done extensive research on the 18th-century French watch-maker, André-Charles Caron, among other topics. These are short extracts from a wide-ranging telephone interview I did with Robert on October 17, 2019.


the beginnings of watch-making in Europe

watch-making in England and France in the 18th century

Robert St-Louis developed an interest in horology after retirement. He has done research in books and online as well as in horological journals. He’s also a collector, acquiring some old tools and specimens of vintage clocks and watches, and he is trying to learn some repair and restoration skills. His main interest is in Parisian watch-makers in the 18th century. Contact him at RSTL9999@gmail.com.

As part of the effort to write this biography of Sam Johnson, I’ve used Twitter as a way to connect with people who have a wide variety knowledge of the 18th century. Not just people who study Johnson — in fact I think few of them are active Johnson scholars in the sense that they teach him at a university — but also people who know about aspects of life in the 18th century (what daily life was like) or who know about other writers and other figures in 18th-century England. It’s a very interesting and vocal group and I enjoy being part of this little community.

I’ve found it interesting, though I guess it shouldn’t be really surprising, that many of them talk about much more than the 18th century in their tweets and replies. I would say that the topics most frequently brought up are Donald Trump, COVID-19, political issues (lately, for example, Black Lives Matter and the initiative to remove statues in the US which depict historical figures who were part of the Confederacy), and personal issues (e.g., the difficulty concentrating and writing in the midst of a pandemic). Some of the people I follow on Twitter are language specialists, either directly, or indirectly in the sense that they are people who study literature and so they know something about language and its uses. I’ve occasionally made an effort to keep my political and other views off Twitter, but I’ve found that it’s hard to make those stark demarcations (“Twitter is only to help me with my Johnson book”). Some of the most interesting people I follow are very vocal about non-18th-century things, and I can’t help replying and commenting myself. Still, I try to keep it to some semblance of a minimum: for example, I might just “like” something from the Lincoln Project or from Sarah Cooper, but won’t go any further than that.

Twitter aside, I am making progress on my book. I’ve outlined the entire sequence of chapters and have both written parts of those chapters, as well as piled notes into some other chapters that I will at some point transmogrify into writing. I’m an organized person, so I can’t feel comfortable just writing a bit here, not documenting it, and then saving all that for a scramble at the end when I search out sources. I’m writing the book in a similar way as I make a dish from a recipe: the focus is on getting the dish to be successfully made, edible, and delicious, but all along I am cleaning up as I go, putting things in the dishwasher, discarding other things.

I also feel that in the last month or so I’ve found my focus better — that is, I have a clearer idea of what I want this book to be and how I want to carry it out. It’s not just making an excuse for not actually writing when I say that I’ve thought a lot about the book, how I can carry it out, and how I want it to be different from any other biography of Johnson. I’ve gone on road trips with my friend Oscar in the past where we just knew where we were headed — once it was to an exhibit in Kansas, I think it was, that featured art made from insects — but had no plan beyond that. We’d find accommodation where we could, we’d find somewhere to eat when we were hungry. I’m not writing this book like that!

To speak more specifically about what exactly I am doing the last few days … part of the research for the book has involved interviewing scholars and others about a variety of topics related to Johnson and the 18th century. I had all those interviews transcribed over the last couple of months and I’ve also already gone through the transcripts to hilite the parts that I consider particularly germane to my writing. So now I’m reviewing all those hilited parts and organizing them by topic. Once that’s done, I’ll have an overall look at my plan for the chapters and insert the quoted hilites in the appropriate spot for now, so that when I’m actually writing that chapter the topic and the quote will be right there, and I won’t have to wonder along the lines of “didn’t Interviewee X say something about this?” and then scrabble through my email or transcripts or other notes in an effort to track it down.

I’ve discovered a few things as I’ve gone along. One has been that I’ve gathered more than enough information about pornography and prostitution in 18th-century England. I do certainly plan to include that topic in my book, but with the combination of interviews I’ve done and books I’ve read, I really think I’ve got enough. Another thing is that I’ve had to remind myself that I’m not writing a book about life in 18th-century England or London. It’s not a full social history. I don’t need to cover that topic comprehensively, but given my aimed-for readership — the general educated reader — I do want to provide context, and I’ve figured out a way to do that. And finally I’ve learned not to be hard on myself and worry about not getting the book done exactly according to the schedule I had planned/hoped for. I’m on track. I am making progress. I won’t be done in 2020, I don’t think, but neither will it be 2030 nor will I be abandoning it. My interest in it, my feeling of it as a challenge, are both still very strong.

One final note. I’ve taken a break along the way to develop a line of greeting cards which include quotations from Johnson. The idea was, similar to that for the book: not to aim at people who already know a lot about Johnson but rather to design cards that are of interest to anyone who is looking for a greeting card. My tagline is Cards for most occasions or for no occasion at all. Funny and accidentally educational. The latter part refers to the fact that the person who selects a card because they needed one to say thank you to a friend, will only discover afterwards that those words that drew them to the card were in fact written a couple of centuries ago. If you’re interested in checking out what I’ve done, see here.