Monthly Archives: November 2023

why is Samuel Johnson still read? (or, why should he be?)


‘The Conversations of Dr. Johnson’ – Preface


“Few now read the many letters of Dr. Johnson. None at . it is fairly safe to say, read the analyses of his books and the lists of variant readings. … that for which every reader turns to is Boswell. …

“It is only by his conversations that Johnson is now remembered.*

“Macaulay* many years ago commented upon [Johnson’s] ‘singular destiny—to be regarded in his own age as a classic, and in ours as a companion.’ His Dictionary has long ago been superseded, his Shakespeare is never consulted, very few people open the files of The Rambler or The Idler, his verse is neglected, Rasselas unread, and it is chiefly students who still turn to his Lives of the Poets.”

— Raymond Postgate, Preface to The Conversations of Dr. Johnson: Extracted from the Life by James Boswell (New York Taplinger Publishing Company, 1930)

*In his Life of Johnson.



This is completely erroneous — from the perspective of today. But it reflects a common view of Johnson that prevailed until not that long ago — I would say into the 1980s or 90s.

Publication of the Yele Edition of Johnson’s works (now in its twentieth volume) has helped. And — most importantly — biographies and studies by writers such as James L. Clifford, W. Jackson Bate, and Donald Greene.

When I began reading Johnson, along with Boswell, in depth, I had discussions about him with my therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp Jr.

Dr. Colp had belonged to a book club in the past where, presumably, the book under discussion was Boswell’s Life of Johnosn. Reacting to my comments about Johnson — I believe I was reading the essays then — he said that a member of the discussion group had said, “The only reason Dr. Johnson is of any interest nowadays is because of Boswell,”

“I guess he was wrong,” Dr Colp said.

I told Dr. Colp that the best thing about Boswell’s Life was the conversations: Johnson’s. They are indeed marvelous. But I can attest, having read many of the essays and other works, that Johnson himself — his works, that is — is very much worth reading, for writers as well as scholars.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2023


selected works of Samuel Johnson in my library