The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters

by Henry Hitchings, MacMillan, 320pp, £16.99

There have been many biographies of Dr Johnson. Indeed, immediately after his death, it was reported that 11 writers were assiduously at work on them. The most famous, Boswell’s Life, has justly become the standard for its breadth, sympathy and detail – though, as Hitchings rightly points out, Boswell did not spend quite as much time in the company of his mentor and friend as he would like his readers to believe.

Wanting to give his own account an original angle, the author has hit upon the modern fashion for seeking gurus everywhere – even among unlikely long dead writers. As an artificial device, such an approach fails, as it is bound to do. Whoever modelled his own life on that of a writer?

That said, Hitchings does not spend much time on Johnson as “guide” (and one can be sure the great Doctor himself would have had a trenchant comment to make on the matter). He concentrates instead on reminding the reader, through his own familiarity with Johnson’s literary output as well as the details of his life, why he lives so vigorously in the minds of modern readers who have happily alighted on him.

Once discovered, as Hitchings found out on reading Boswell aged 19 at university, Johnson can never be forgotten.Hitchings includes an account of Johnson’s own life, in all its heroic and occasionally tragi-comic dimensions, weaving the biographical story in and out of the prodigious literary achievement. Essentially, he does what a good biographer should do: he communicates his passion for his chosen subject to those who might not have had the pleasure of meeting Johnson themselves.

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