I received this past week two books that I’d ordered and am really thrilled to have.
This one is the 5-volume set of the complete (and now considered standard and authoritative) letters of Sam Johnson, edited by Bruce Redford. I happened to be able to buy a completely new copy, still in the publisher’s plastic wrapping, even though it was published in 1992 (thank you, AbeBooks). There’s a nice surprise with this scholarly edition that I think is very imaginative and practical, and with a kind of accompanying “in-joke.” Notice that the 5th volume contains no letters but just appendices and an index, and so the spine is much narrower than the spines of the other 4 volumes. I like the solution a lot: get rid of the The in the title, hyphenate John-son, but most coolly abbreviate Samuel to Sam: — and with the colon. The inclusion of the colon is a nice nod to reality, because (according to my first calculations) of the 1,611 pages of letters dating from 1731 (when Sam was 22) to 1784 (the year of his death), extremely few have a signature that is other than Sam: Johnson.
So the spine of the 5th volume pays a little tribute to that.
The other book I received was this one by a well-known Johnson and literary scholar from the mid-20th century, W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. The surprise here of course is that the copy is actually inscribed by Wimsatt himself and is a gift to John Pope (whose identity I haven’t been able to track down yet, but who may be related to the Michael John Pope, who was born in Lichfield (Sam’s birthplace as well), and in whose memory a sketch of Lichfield Cathedral was donated to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum (see here).
There’s been so much scholarly work done on Johnson that on one hand it’s heartening to have so much authoritative information to draw on — but it can be daunting. Not even an active scholar can have read all of it, and I certainly haven’t. But with the combination of my Kindle, the internet, and now a few more books on my shelves, I’m overall very happy to have so much to work with. The letters, by the way, make great reading, and I like that Redford has arrangement them chronologically instead of by theme or recipient or something like that. I imagine myself reading all of them in order some time later in my life, daily, like some Christians read their Bible. If I read just 4 or 5 pages a day, I could be through the whole set easily in a year.
In this week’s episode of my podcast, I’ll read a few of the letters for you. They provide an excellent indication of his style. You have 3 minutes or so, right?