Born near Liverpool in 1944, Nigel Rees went to the Merchant Taylors' School, Crosby, and then took a degree in English at Oxford. He is a broadcaster, author and journalist, and devised and presents BBC Radio 4's long-running Quote... Unquote programme. He is the author of more than 50 books, including A Word In Your Shell-Like, More Tea Vicar?, and Cassell's Dictionary of Catchphrases. Here Nigel writes about Boswell's Life of Johnson.
Nigel Rees on The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
Before I get down to The Book, let me delay matters for a moment with a few memories of what happened when I started to read proper books – memories which have been prompted by having to single out one that has had an effect on me.
I can't recall what the first grown-up book I read might have been. However, I can, curiously, remember the first book I bought with my own money. It was a second-hand copy of the two-volume Penguin edition of The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. It was all about Scott's last expedition and contained rather more information on different varieties of penguin than I needed, then or now. I suppose I was about twelve or thirteen and, having made that purchase, I solemnly waded through it from cover to cover, without much enjoyment. I have never gone back to it.
Cover to cover, of course. In those early days of my reading, I thought it was very important to read every word of a book. First, the cover copy and the blurb and then every word from first page to last page. It took me a while to cure myself of this habit. Nowadays, I tend to judge a book by the timing of the moment when I look to see how many pages there are to go or when I begin to skim or skip or attempt my own version of speed reading. If I don't do any of these things, I am on to a winner.
Another habit I acquired in my early reading years was devising a method for breaking off. I would read to the end of the first paragraph on a left hand page and then stop. Then when I took up the book again, I would not have to hunt for my place. You may think this strange, but I still do it even now.
Then, a year or two after this Basic Training was complete, I moved into the sixth form at my school in Liverpool and was set upon by a triumvirate of masters who thought it would be an awfully good idea if I went in for an Open Scholarship in English at Oxford. One of them, whom I still refer to by his initials, 'R.C.S.', issued a list of works of literature 'it would be very useful if you had read when you go for your interview'. Recently I tried to reconstruct the list from memory. It included such quick reads as Tom Jones and War and Peace. It may also have included a volume of Proust (albeit in translation). First off, I think I read The Mayor of Casterbridge. I recently re-read this Hardy after a gap of 40 years and what an extraordinary tale it is. But it had no effect on me then. Not exactly the stuff for schoolboys, even sixth-formers.
A book on the list that did have an effect on me – and now I am at last getting round to Norm's question – was Crime and Punishment. I can see myself sitting in my room, possibly on a Wednesday or Saturday afternoon, having successfully prayed for it to rain, so that I would not have to play rugby, and being blown away, as we would now say, by Dostoevsky's description of the murder. Such responses are unlikely to be repeated on a second reading. But if I ever needed to choose an example of the power of the written word to affect the reader, emotionally, intellectually, and indeed physically, I would adduce that moment.
After which, it may come as a bit of a let down if, instead, I plump for another book as my main choice. I also first sampled Boswell's Life of Johnson in those pre-scholarship months. Perhaps I can hear you groaning at this choice. Either you get the great Johnson/Boswell double-act or you don't (my wife is in the second category). But this is a book I must have re-read four or five times in the years since school. When I do so, I always find something I did not know was there. And, of course, I always enjoy meeting again the familiar Johnsonian pronouncements.
It is easy to dismiss Johnson as a pompous, overbearing after-dinner bore but I do not find him so. For example, there is one piece of his wisdom I repeat constantly to this day. Boswell was having landlord trouble and considered it a 'serious distress'. Johnson told him to buck up: 'There is nothing in this mighty misfortune... Consider, Sir, how insignificant this will appear a twelvemonth hence.' Which, frankly, is the best piece of advice you can give anybody who is making a crisis out of a difficulty.
I have always responded to Johnson's humanity. We know that he was bear-like in argument and, as Goldsmith said, he would beat his opponents down with the butt end of his pistol if it missed fire. Yet against this are the numerous records of his not being overbearing and of his being simply and touchingly human.
When his friends Beauclerk and Langton, who had been drinking, knocked Johnson up at three o'clock in the morning, his happy response was: 'What, is it you, you dogs! I'll have a frisk with you.' Not what you might have expected.
Then, in the face of death and of his God, Johnson is deeply moving in the humility of his prayers and meditations.
All I can say is, if you haven't read it, then do so. Prepare to be stirred and stimulated, not to mention to be able to luxuriate in an absolute lexicographer's delight of 18th-century prose.