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Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading

, 288 pages
April 2009



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Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading

If readers of the twentieth century feel overwhelmed by the proliferation of writing and information, they can find in Samuel Johnson a sympathetic companion. Johnson's career coincided with the rapid expansion of publishing in England—not only in English, but in Latin and Greek; not only in books, but in reviews, journals, broadsides, pamphlets, and books about books. In 1753 Johnson imagined a time when "writers will, perhaps, be multiplied, till no readers will be found." Three years later, he wrote that England had become "a nation of authors" in which "every man must be content to read his book to himself."

In Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading, Robert DeMaria considers the surprising influence of one of the greatest readers in English literature. Johnson's relationship to books not only reveals much about his life and times, DeMaria contends, but also provides a dramatic counterpoint to modern reading habits. As a superior practitioner of the craft, Johnson provides a compelling model for how to read—indeed, he provides different models for different kinds of reading. DeMaria shows how Johnson recognized early that not all reading was alike—some requiring intense concentration, some suited for cursory glances, some requiring silence, some best appreciated amid the chatter of a coffeehouse. Considering the remarkable range of Johnson's reading, DeMaria discovers in one extraordinary career a synoptic view of the subject of reading.

Robert DeMaria Jr. is the Henry Noble MacCracken Professor of English Literature at Vassar College. His books include The Life of Samuel Johnson, Johnson's Dictionary and the Language of Learning, and British Literature 1640-1789: An Anthology.

"Enacts Johnson's celebrated variation on a theme from Horace—it does not merely delight and instruct, but rather instructs by delighting us... DeMaria proves himself a reader altogether worthy of his subject."

"Fascinatingly perceptive both of Johnson's own reading habits and of their significance in the cultural history of reading."

"Both a scholarly and an imaginative achievement, combining detailed detective work, abstract categorization, and sympathetic understanding. The finished product re-creates the detailed fabric of Johnson's reading career while locating it in a cultural landscape of rapid publication and growing literacy... Eminently readable, learned, and thoughtful."

"An intellectual history of the writer and his age."

"DeMaria presents an imaginative re-creation of Johnson's library and suggests how his reading habits offered a model for preventing the disappearance of the reader."

"This book's strong and original starting point is to study Samuel Johnson through his activity as a reader, not as a writer. By looking at Johnson as a representative and influential reader, DeMaria helps us to understand not only one author but the history of reading itself. No one can read this book without learning a great deal about practices of reading and how they change from one age to the next."

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