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What I'm Reading (No. 74): more Sam Johnson + Mo Willems
Just yesterday afternoon I finished a book that firmly has a top three spot in my favorite reads of 2019 thus far. (And possibly the first spot, in a tie with Oliver Twist and Fall and Rise; Caro's LBJ series is masterful writing — among the best, actually — but the subject is not very admirable, and that bums me out.)
I'll also get into some memorable books I've been reading with my son the last couple weeks.
Let's do it.
Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate
"Samuel Johnson has fascinated more people than any other writer except Shakespeare."
So begins Bate's memorable, surely unmatched biography of one of history's most interesting (and modernity's most overlooked) writers and humans.
So also begins my surely ongoing education into Johnson's life and work.
I gave you a taste last week, and I wish I could give more. But space just does not allow. So right here at the start, I'll say that you should read this book.
Samuel Johnson — both the book and the character — grabbed my interest from that first sentence. It is immensely readable and absolutely full to the brim of life lessons about overcoming difficulties, finding and working towards your purpose, the beauty and faults and hopefulness of humanity; plus, especially interesting to a fellow who sometimes considers himself a writer, there is a veritable deluge to be learned on that particular craft.
In spite of my supreme book nerdiness, his was not a name I was all that familiar with. I had come across it in passing, but I distinctly remember having looked him up on Wikipedia numerous times simply because I could never remember who the guy was. And yet, as Bate noted, not only was Johnson just "fascinating," he was and is perhaps one of the top few quoted writers in the English language. You probably just don't realize it because his work has so constantly been built upon and riffed on.
From his truly epic dictionary (used by Austen, Dickens, Bronte, and more), to his voluminous essays, to his groundbreaking biographical sketches, he wrote enough to keep me busy for quite a long time.
Not only that, but he's the subject of what Bate calls "the most famous work of biographical art in the history of literature," to which "nothing comparable" exists in the annals of the genre: James Boswell's 1,400-page Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). I'm planning on reading that mountain of a book this year.
That particular combination — of first-person writings and biographical genius from both Boswell and Bate — makes for a man more interesting and more inspiring than just about any I've come across.
And so here I am, a few hundred words into this review of Bate's work, and I've only conveyed tangential information, barely even touching the substance of the book. Like any work (Johnson himself even critiqued Shakespeare), there are flaws: Bate gets a little too Freudian, and doesn't touch enough on The Club or Johnson's lasting legacy. Those flaws should be ignored. The real strength of Bate is in showing Johnson's utter humanity. Here was a man long wracked by self-guilt and who made annual resolutions to accomplish more. Here was a man about whom peers commented was "music" to hear speak in conversation. Here was a man who looked to be pleased rather than looked to be annoyed. What if that was everyone general disposition?
I loved this biography. It took me a full hour just to transcribe all my notes into Google Docs (for which the longer portions I just noted the page numbers to reference later), and my head is spinning with all that both man and biographer had to say.
Samuel Johnson is a book I'll long remember, and Samuel Johnson is a man I plan on spending I plan on spending a great deal of time with in the years to come.
A Memorable Chapters Reading List
Chapter 15 of Bate's biography of Samuel Johnson was so memorable that it made me think of the other single chapters in books I've read that have stuck with me. This list is non-fic. Sometime I'll do a fiction version.
Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate. Chapter 15 — "Storming the Main Gate: the Dictionary." About Johnson's massive and single-handed project to compile the first true English dictionary.
Wasington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Chapter 23 — "The Crossing." About Washington's epic crossing of the Delaware. It's possibly the craziest, most intense single feat of a president in US history.
The Path to Power by Robert Caro. Chapter 27 — "The Sad Irons." About what life was like in the Texas Hill Country before Lyndon Johnson brought those sad people electricity.
Master of the Senate by Robert Caro. Chapters 30 & 31 — "The Rising Tide" & "The Compassion of Lyndon Johnson. About the realities of life in the South for black folks, and Lyndon's complicated sense of compassion, which had both elements of selfishness and utter selflessness.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Chapter 10. About his literal fight with Mr. Covey, an overseer. Unthinkable courage from a man in his position.
An Ode to Mo Willems
Every couple weeks our family makes a trip to the library. Jane browses the latest fiction. I absorb myself in history and non-fiction for the most part. And Graham, our almost-4-year-old son, picks out a handful of books from the kids section.
A while back, he chose a fun little title called Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. It was a really enjoyable read for kid and dad alike; a silly premise, lots of good-natured humor, and simple yet effective illustrations. I made a mental note of the author's name — Mo Willems — in order to keep an eye out for him in the future.
Aside, but related: It's been interesting to see, as a parent, how much my own enjoyment of a book makes a difference in my overall enjoyment of reading with my kids. A lame book really turns me off to that activity which is usually so cherished. Especially if you're not particularly prone to reading to or with your kids, having books that you personally enjoy — maybe they're nostalgic, funny, wonderfully artistic, or any combination — makes it far more likely that you'll come to also relish that time. Yes, let your kids pick books to read, but guide them to things that you like too.
Okay, back to Mo. In a bit of delightful bookish serendipity — which tends to happen quite a bit when you're paying attention — our family came across another Willems title in our doctor's office: The Pigeon Needs a Bath! I had been vaguely aware of this Pigeon series, but only then made the connection to the name "Willems" on the cover. We flipped through while our daughter was waiting for shots, and I was again thoroughly entertained. Sure enough, next time we went to the library we grabbed three more Pigeon books (a series of nine books) as well as one from his equally delightful Elephant and Piggie series (of which there are 25 titles).
It's not often that I find kids' books that truly make me guffaw of my own accord, and not just because my kids are laughing. And yet all of Willems' titles have done that. (At least for the first handful of reads.) They're a real joy to read aloud: full of wit, woven with nice lessons for kids — but not in an overbearing manner — and creatively constructed in ways that children just plain enjoy and adults are rather impressed by.
I'd love to hear the books that you and your kids have enjoyed the most. We're always looking for new ones!
One More Thing
I've long enjoyed the NY Times "By the Book" column. Each week, they ask some famed author or smart person about their reading habits, impactful works in their life, etc. Check it out, and if you have a digital subscription, you can browse through the entire archive of columns, going back years. It's a worthwhile activity. John McCain's is especially enlightening. I also, of course, really enjoyed Larry McMurtry.
Okay, I know this was long, but man was it a fun one to write. I'd love to hear what you're reading!