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Samuel Johnson on Reading and Writing

Quotations From Dr. Johnson


Samuel Johnson on Reading and Writing

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” (Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784)

Samuel Johnson knew a thing or two about reading and writing. For more than three years the British author almost single-handedly wrote and edited a biweekly journal, The Rambler. After completing his master work, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), he returned to journalism by contributing essays and reviews to the Literary Magazine and The Idler.

Some of Johnson's many other works include a travel narrative (A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland), a novella (The History of Rasselas), a biography (An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage), and a highly regarded edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare.

Nevertheless, the version of Johnson that's best known to many readers is the portrait composed by James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791), one of the greatest biographies in English.

This collection of Samuel Johnson's observations on reading and writing draws on Boswell's biography as well as many of Johnson's own writings.

Johnson on Writing

  • "A man may write at any time if he will set himself doggedly to do it."
    (quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

  • "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it."
    ("Review of a Free Enquiry," 1757)

  • "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."
    (quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

  • "Among the numerous requisites that must concur to complete an author, few are of more importance than an early entrance into the living world. The seeds of knowledge may be planted in solitude, but must be cultivated in publick. Argumentation may be taught in colleges, and theories formed in retirement, but the artifice of embellishment and the powers of attraction can be gained only by a general converse."
    (The Rambler, No. 168, Oct. 26, 1751)

  • "I would say to [William] Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: 'Read over your compositions and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'"
    (quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

  • "Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of [Joseph] Addison."
    ("Addison," Lives of the English Poets, 1779-1781)

  • "In all pointed sentences, some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness."
    ("On the Bravery of the English Common Soldiers," The British Magazine, Jan. 1760)

  • "Every man speaks and writes with intent to be understood; and it can seldom happen but he that understands himself, might convey his notions to another, if, content to be understood, he did not seek to be admired; but when once he begins to contrive how his sentiments may be received, not with most ease to his reader, but with most advantage to himself, he then transfers his consideration from words to sounds, from sentences to periods, and as he grows more elegant becomes less intelligible."
    ("The Bugbear Style," The Idler, No. 36, Dec. 23, 1758)

  • "My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, 'Sir, I am your most humble servant.' You are not his most humble servant. . . . You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don't think foolishly."
    (quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

  • "The business of a poet, said Imlac, is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest."
    (Rasselas, 1759)

  • "[The poet] must write as the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations; as a being superior to time and place."
    (Rasselas, 1759)

  • "To exact of every man who writes that he should say something new would be to reduce authors to a small number; to oblige the most fertile genius to say only what is new would be to contract his volumes to a few pages."
    ("Books," The Idler, No. 85, Dec. 1, 1759)

  • "There are, indeed, few kinds of composition from which an author, however learned or ingenious, can hope a long continuance of fame."
    ("The Vanity of Authors," The Rambler, No. 160, March 23, 1751)

  • "Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils."
    (Preface to Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765)

  • "To fix the thoughts by writing, and subject them to frequent examinations and reviews, is the best method of enabling the mind to detect its own sophisms, and keep it on guard against the fallacies which it practises on others: in conversation we naturally diffuse our thoughts, and in writing we contract them; method is the excellence of writing, and unconstraint the grace of conversation."
    ("On Studies," The Adventurer, No. 85, Aug. 28, 1753)

  • Johnson on Reading

  • "A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good."
    (quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

  • "What is read twice is commonly better remembered than what is transcribed."
    (The Idler, No. 74, 1759)

  • "I would put a child in a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from reading anything that he takes a liking to from a notion that it is above his reach."
    (quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

  • "I love the young dogs of this age, they have more wit and humour and knowledge of life than we had; but then the dogs are not so good scholars. In my early years I read very hard. It is a sad reflection, but a true one, that I knew almost as much at eighteen as I do now. My judgement, to be sure, was not so good; but, I had all the facts. I remember very well, when I was at Oxford, an old gentleman said to me, 'Young man, ply your book diligently now, and acquire a stock of knowledge; for when years come unto you, you will find that poring upon books will be but an irksome task.'"
    (quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

  • "I have always suspected that the reading is right, which requires many words to prove it wrong; and the emendation wrong, that cannot without so much labour appear to be right."
    (Preface to Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765)

  • "No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library."
    (The Rambler, No. 106, March 23, 1751)
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