2009 is the tercentenary year of the birth of Samuel Johnson, renowned lexicographer, conversationalist, man of letters, and much more. It would have seemed a shame to let this year pass without my learning more about this legendary bookman, and so, undaunted by my lack of expertise, I offered to do a presentation on the great man at a conference in June.
There are at least two new Johnson biographies out this year. I read them both, and did I ever learn a thing or two. Johnson was a man of great tensions and contradictions: his literary output seems prolific to us (he wrote Rasselas in a week, to pay for his mother's funeral), but a deep sense of personal laziness and procrastination never left him; he was kind to the coterie of misfits and outcasts he shared a house with, but could be devastatingly cruel in personal conversations; he craved and treasured friendship, but it was not difficult to offend him deeply; he will always be remembered to us as "Doctor" Johnson, but every one of his degrees was honorary, granted by eminent places like Oxford and Trinity College, Dublin only after he had won fame and respect on his own.
And I can't neglect to mention that while The Doctor was a great friend of learning, he was an unholy terror with respect to books themselves. One of his recent biographers observed that "he wrote in them, bent their spines, threw them face down on the dirty floor, stained them with food, and failed to return them to their owners." One volume, borrowed on his behalf from an Oxford library in 1734, turned up Johnson's London residence after his death, fifty years later!
Nobody's legacy is perfect, and not even a librarian would want Dr. Johnson to be remembered primarily as a "problem borrower." All the same, he was a great one for seeing the contradictions in others, but this one of his own – love of learning mixed with near-contempt for books themselves – seems to have escaped his notice.