Definitely the 21st Century

One of the things I’ve been gathering a lot of information about is about what I might call generically “life in the 18th century.” Given that the book is aimed at a general readership, I think it’s important to give people an idea of what it was like to live during that century. I don’t mean that I will be concentrating on wars and political events and that sort of thing. I won’t be. I mean: what was it like to live your daily life? How did you wake up in the morning? What jobs did people do? What condition were the streets in? Was the mail service reliable? How did people dress and where did they buy their clothes? Was there any such thing as “off the rack” or was everything made by tailors? What did homes look like? Did people generally own them or rent them? And how much did everything cost? What was significantly cheaper than it is now, and what was more expensive?

And so on like that. Medicine, poverty, publishing, religion, sex, style, watches — and much more. One could write a whole book about all that, of course — and several people have! — but my plan is to try to compact it into a readable chapter or two. The focus of the book is Samuel Johnson, not life in London in the 18th century, but I do feel that people need a taste of the latter before they can savour the former. I’ve found much information in books and journals, of course, but I’ve also interviewed experts who have given me details that are just invaluable.

The whole thing also sometimes makes me think about what it would be like if Johnson were living in the 21st century. His Rambler essays, for example, would make a nice blog — and at twice a week and kept up for two solid years, much more successful than most blogs are. I myself manage to do these fairly short blog postings about once or twice a month. This one will have about 500 words in it — pretty modest. Each of Johnson’s twice-weekly essays was well over a thousand words on average.

I’ll end with a plea … if there’s an aspect of 18th-century living, especially in London, that you know a lot about, please contact me any time. I’d love to hear from you.

Please take a look at my guest posting on the blog of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum here. Includes an image of a painting I commissioned in 2014 for what turned out to be a bright, cubist take on one of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portraits of Johnson.

That’s the answer that Johnson gave to Boswell when he was asked how he could make any of his Rambler essays any better. It’s a good answer from a practical person and editor. Nothing is perfect. If you look back at anything you were quite pleased with when you first wrote or published it, you could probably find parts that could be cut (“put out”), added, or corrected.

I’m not at that stage yet with this biography of Johnson I am writing, but I made great progress today on putting some order and structure around the mass of information and research that I have already gathered for the book. It reminds me a bit of a short book called Less, about personal minimalism, that I published in 2013. With that book, I compiled the content in a way that I don’t usually do, that is, by brainstorming (I hate that word, but you know what I mean). It is a book about me and my minimalist habits and how they have an effect on how I deal with people, so I wrote down all I could think about from my own life about the topic. I ended up (ironically for the topic, of course) with too much information, and the challenge was to cut some out and to put the remaining bits in an order that would be understandable to the reader.

I did similarly today with the Johnson book. I finally — or, well, not necessarily finally, but this is what seems to work for now — finally decided how to incorporate into the book the various sections I plan to have where I delve deeper into certain aspects of Johnson’s character. The basic book itself will be in a pretty standard chronological order, but certain topics are of particular interest to me, and I will be writing about them at some length. Not too long, of course, as I have to keep my reader in mind, but in a certain sense this is one of the aspects of the biography that will make it different from many of the others that have been published. I’m not saying it’s (in the true sense of the word) unique, but it will be an aspect of the structure of the book that makes it different, makes it the book that I have written.

It’s been a good writing day, which started in the morning, was nicely interrupted by coffee and great conversation with a friend, and then continued this evening. In the course of it all, I had a reason to look at one of the great books by another 18th-century author, Jonathan Swift, that many people don’t know about, called A Tale of a Tub, published in 1704. Here’s a quote from that book that will be useful to my own project:

With knowledge it has fared as with a numerous army encamped in a fruitful country, which for a few days maintains itself by the product of the soil it is on, till provisions being spent, they send to forage many a mile among friends or enemies, it matters not. Meanwhile the neighbouring fields, trampled and beaten down, become barren and dry, affording no sustenance but clouds of dust.

I don’t find the blogging about my writing about Johnson is slogging. But I set up a convenient form on my website where people can contact me, or send comments, or whatever they might want to do. It is here for my Johnson site and here for my general website. I’m going to have to take down both forms because — and I am not sure how exactly this works on the web — they have mostly been hijacked by people trying to sell me something, or simply saying “I love your comment” or something like that, or generally sending me something that has nothing to do with having read one of my blog postings and wanting to send comment, or having looked through my site and wanting to do the same. I’m no expert in this, but I doubt whether it’s individual people hunting down the websites of writers and librarians whom they can harangue with pointless comment: it’s probably some kind of bot or program that sends the same message to thousands (or millions) and hopes for — hopes for what, I am not sure.

I received one last Thursday from Jacketige at that kind of topped the lot of them. Not only did it have nothing to do with my site, but its contents seemed like the ravings of an unstable person (or literary genius?). The subject line was “80 % of females false it then” and it started like this:

in education, I kept to your neighbors into an agonizingly more or less drink waitress. late into the evening, in the aftermath of she had return home with operate, lady boyfriend he forced one specific hayundai, needless to say without doubt turn up with respect to his particular every night butt speak to. the entire rooms ended up being very thin. in a little while, as with clockwork, your woman’s singing ordinarily should pierce our drywall to provide a water vapor locomotive’s whistle: “Hehehehehe” and “Yesyesyes, and next a surge as to impressive pitched “Ohmigodohmigodohmigod, in addition to utilized jealous at the time, instantly apparently all this lady stoked vocals might have been just the female equivalent of “the couch presents itself nice living in individual tight pants or skirts, baby. trustworthy, a process of research for sale past month inside the microfiche about erotic routines implies that those apparently irrepressible “Ohmigods” for the duration of visible climax is actually learn performing arts designed “manipulate” men.

Maybe this is post-post-post modern literature that I don’t quite understand? Maybe it’s generated from some database? Maybe I should be worried about someone’s singing piercing my drywall and somehow providing water vapor for a locomotive’s whistle?

It ends with:

numerous, modern society and as well, as well as the social do not really relate to all of us suitable principles and lessons. research projects dependably train the fact that persons believe how to locate whatever another gender requires, but also that marilyn and i usually are other. and they turn up shopping to outguess various other. for this reason Muehlenhard believes that there may be nothing a challenge with will likely determine mind games maker present. we have a downside to so resonance. “it a problem to allow arousal industrial noise the moment one should be bored to death maybe in pain, the girl expressed. “that has to be preparing to convey falsehoods to an individual’s future spouse, Who most probably will consider that this sexual practice is amiable and really should be repeated the next occasion. I are convinced all together, dependability is better protection plan.

And now it sounds like those parody translations from Chinese, or those online translation sites that do their best to approximate English.

Anyway, as they say, it’s been a slice, it’s been fun, but I’ll be taking the forms down and replacing them with simple email addresses. I don’t know if this is a better or worse idea.

I have a lot of bits and pieces, and some of them some big bits or pieces, done for the biography about Samuel Johnson that I am writing. Some sections or scenes or passages have been fully written in advanced first draft, where when I go back to look at them, there likely won’t be much to change. I have also pretty well already set down a basic chronology of the events from Johnson’s life that I want to cover. There are a good half dozen or more authoritative, scholarly biographies of Johnson out there, many of them pretty recent — as well as books about aspects of his life, such as Leo Damrosch’s The Club — so the narrative is well known among those who are interested in it.

Part of the purpose of my book is to engender interest in those who don’t happen to be all that interested or who haven’t heard of Johnson. (I’m reminded of a great line from a now-dead uncle of mine, when he heard about a line of fishing rods made with the brand name Shakespeare: “Hey, isn’t that the guy that wrote the book?”) There’s a challenge here, if I may humbly say, because I want to present the full life of Johnson without just concentrating on the gnarly or sexy or loud bits, which would skew the life of a man whose legacy and life I respect, and whom I’ve studied since the early 1980s. (I hasten to add: not studied as a scholar, but as a well-informed amateur. I’ve been a librarian for most of my life.)

This, BTW, is my last official day as University Librarian at Carleton University in Canada’s capital. What a great time I had there and what great things my team and staff and I accomplished while I was there, if I may say so. I feel that I may say so because the work accomplished in any large organization is not done by “the boss,” but often by the boss getting out of the way and letting the senior team decide or letting the qualified and enthusiastic staff get their work done. I’m proud to have worked there.

The other part of the Johnson bio that I have to handle with care is the “personal” elements. I plan to incorporate sections on how Johnson’s thought or writing or life experiences have influenced or touched me. This is dangerous, not for what it might reveal about me — at the age of 60, I don’t worry about such stuff any more — but because it might become self-serving and — damn, what’s the word! — [after 10 seconds] self-indulgent. This is not a bio of me.

I’ve been so appreciative of those scholars and others who over the past several months have agreed to be interviewed by me (mostly by phone) about topics which were also aspects of Johnson’s life. It will all be covered in the final List of Sources in the book, but they have been so far (apologies if I have missed a name):

  • Annette Rubery
  • Colleen Cotter
  • Frans de Bruyn
  • Helen Williams
  • Jonathan Hyde
  • Judith Hawley
  • Kathy Lubey
  • Katie Barclay
  • Laura Rosenthal
  • Marjorie Doyle
  • Patrick O’Flaherty
  • Rebecca Shapiro
  • Robert Saint-Louis
  • Steph Clayton
  • Tiffany Stern
  • Tony Thorne
  • William Savage

These were short and pointed interviews, often just 20 to 45 minutes, but I am so so appreciative of the knowledge that the more-informed-than-I agreed to impart.

Of course the book contains traditional research in other secondary sources as well, and a limited amount in primary sources. Also, given the intended readership, I intend on including lots of photos, and/or linking to a page where I will post lots of photos. That is part of the reason I am in London: to get photos of Johnson’s haunts. One of the first stops will be the Turk’s Head Tavern. Sounds like a good place for a pint later in the day …

9:39 a.m.