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.