Published in 1791, James Boswell`s The life of Samuel Johnson is still the greatest biography in the English language and a gold mine of conspicuous erudition. In fact, in the days, not so very long ago, when people aspired to intellectual superiority the way they currently yearn for more credit cards, the ability to quote Boswell quoting Johnson constituted the basic literacy test in some (admittedly preposterous) social circles.
Don’t look for a story line; just think of the book as a talk show with a particularly entertaining guest and an interviewer who knows enough to shut up and listen. And don’t let the scholarly reputation scare you off; Johnson the eighteenth century savant seemed scary even to his contemporaries, but making him accessible was Boswell’s mission in life.
Essentially a quick succession of close-ups of Johnson holding forth, the biography is three-dimensional and so fast-paced that you may feel like you’re being whisked from one dinner party to another without ever having time for a cigar. Before the evening’s over, however, Johnson will have come alive, and, although none of his aphorisms will help you get rid of cellulite or make a killing on the stock exchange, you’ll probably find both his unshakable moral certitude and his way with words fortifying.
Finally, you might want to memorise a few bits of Johnsonese yourself, just in case intellectual snobbism comes into vogue again during your lifetime. Here are some good ones to toss off in the drawing room, bearing in mind, of course that your timing, as well as your delivery, must be impeccable:
If he does really think that there is no distinction between vice and virtue, why, sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.
Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.
A man of genius has seldom been ruined but by himself.
That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.
No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden.
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Were it not for imagination, sir, a man would be as happy in the arms of a
chambermaid as a duchess.
Worth seeing? Yes, but not worth going to see.
He is not only dull himself, but the cause of dullness in others.
I have found you an argument; I am not obliged to find you an understanding.
It is better to live rich, than to die rich.