In his fascinating book The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr. Johnson’s Guide to Life, Henry Hitchings reveals Dr. Johnson’s varied approach to reading:
The truth is that he read in different ways for different purposes. We all do so, but tend to have a limited awareness of this divergence. Robert DeMaria distinguishes Sam’s four approaches: he read curiously, entering into a ‘dreamlike state of enjoyment’ as he allowed himself to become completely engrossed in a book; perused texts for answers to specific questions that were preying on his mind; practised ‘hard reading’, the close and critical study of intellectually demanding material; and engaged in ‘mere reading’, which involved scanning a newspaper or some other ephemeral publication ‘without the fatigue of close attention’, for, as he remarked, ‘the world . . . swarms with writers whose wish is not to be studied, but to be read’. His attitude to reading is liberating and inspiring: he champions it, appreciates the range of forms it can take, and does justice to the truth of readers’ experience.
Have you read James Boswell’s intriguing Life of Johnson? Twenty-Five years ago I set sail on that adventure but soon crashed on the rocks of time. It’s a big book and not an easy read. But now, being cooped-up in my two rooms hiding from the CoVid, I’m considering a second run at it. After all, the Boswell is on my Bucket List and time is running out.
This time I have an advantage. Of course my trusty old Modern Library edition is still prominent on my shelf but to misquote a recent personage, the print is TOO DAMN SMALL Then again, who cares? Technology has exploded in the last 25 years and I can expand the text on my digital copy making it large enough that I can read it in the next county. And if that isn’t good enough, Apple has provided me with several convenient accessibility tools that can bring the Dead Sea Scrolls back to life.
I won’t even have to brush the dust off my magnifying glass.
But how should I read Boswell: I’m not looking for any blockbuster revelations about Dr. Johnson, nor am I intending to do an Evelyn Wood and just hit the highlights; yet I’m not good at being dreamlike and too old to knuckle down and take notes (will there be a test?). Maybe there’s a fifth way of reading: pay close attention but also check what new entertainments are coming to Netflix.
Somehow I suspect Dr. Sam would appreciate Netflix: after all, it’s not the opera.