Goodbye Doctor Johnson
Today I finished a 6-year side project. It was a weird labor of love, one that I didn’t promote much, because it’s such a niche interest. Yes, I know, I know: Matt, what interest of yours isn’t a weird niche interest? Anyway:
I made a blog for a dead dude.
Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) was an influential English poet, critic, author of the first English dictionary, and essayist.
His best writing is contained in the essays he wrote for London newspapers, The Idler, The Rambler, and The Adventurer. He varied his topic every week, and wrote about nearly anything he pleased, which resulted in some very good and some very bad work.
You can still read Johnson’s essays in book forms – there are countless collections available for your pleasure, and they’re available at any local library that still carries, you know, books. But sitting down to read his essays straight through in book form is really sub-optimal – he jumps from literary criticism of Milton to a fictional story about a landowner to a political rant about Parliament – but it’s perfect for occasional blog reading. It worked as a semi-frequent newspaper column, but it’s terrible as a book.
I realized: Samuel Johnson would have a written a great blog.
(Samuel Johnson: That’s kind of how it feels to actually read some of his writing.)
So, in 2011, I started JohnsonEssays.com to post Samuel Johnson’s essays in the same way his original readers found him. They’re semi-frequent, posted 260 years after Johnson wrote them. I’d match the exact date of publication (ie, the essay he published on March 22, 1757 would be posted on my site on March 22, 2017).
340 essays later, they’re done. (And I actually read almost all of them!)
Johnson is famous for being witty - justifiably - but he also seems to have salient things to say for today. You can trawl pinterest for the cute versions.
But pinterest aside, he’s also really good at length. You’ve got to get through his interminable sentences, but once you get the rhythm it’s pretty great.
For instance, here’s Johnson’s essay ‘The Universal Register’ where he predicts Craigslist:
I was lately considering, among other objects of speculation, the new attempt of an universal register, an office, in which every man may lodge an account of his superfluities and wants, of whatever he desires to purchase or to sell. My imagination soon presented to me the latitude to which this design may be extended by integrity and industry, and the advantages which may be justly hoped from a general mart of intelligence, when once its reputation shall be so established, that neither reproach nor fraud shall be feared from it: when an application to it shall not be censured as the last resource of desperation, nor its informations suspected as the fortuitous suggestions of men obliged not to appear ignorant. A place where every exuberance may be discharged, and every deficiency supplied; where every lawful passion may find its gratifications, and every honest curiosity receive satisfaction; where the stock of a nation, pecuniary and intellectual, may be brought together, and where all conditions of humanity may hope to find relief, pleasure, and accommodation; must equally deserve the attention of the merchant and philosopher, of him who mingles in the tumult of business, and him who only lives to amuse himself with the various employments and pursuits of others.
Rambler No. 105. The universal register; a dream
Yes, Johnson wrote very, very long sentences.
Here’s Johnson on filter bubbles and confirmation bias:
The mind is seldom quickened to very vigorous operations but by pain, or the dread of pain. We do not disturb ourselves with the detection of fallacies which do us no harm, nor willingly decline a pleasing effect to investigate its cause.
Idler No. 18. Drugget Vindicated.
But of course, he was a man of his time. There’s a lot that doesn’t hold up, like here where he ridicules the idea of ever going to the moon:
It is well known, that many things appear plausible in speculation, which can never be reduced to practice; and that of the numberless projects that have flattered mankind with theoretical speciousness, few have served any other purpose than to show the ingenuity of their contrivers. A voyage to the moon, however romantick and absurd the scheme may now appear, since the properties of air have been better understood, seemed highly probable to many of the aspiring wits in the last century, who began to dote upon their glossy plumes, and fluttered with impatience for the hour of their departure.
Adventurer No. 45. The difficulty of forming confederacies
This project gave me exactly what I wanted - a pleasant way to read through Johnson’s essays as they were originally experienced. And it was a fun, slow steady project. The site now has some decent traffic from google, and is used by university courses and referenced in the core wikipedia articles. There’s probably no next step for it, but it sure feels nice to tie a bow on a long, long side project.