The case of Dr. Johnson is a strange one. On the one hand, the extent of his achievements, the magnetism of his personality, and the sheer strength of his genius has forever secured him a place among the literary giants of all ages. On the other hand, Time seems to have both granted him fame and deprived him of readers. Nowadays, when people want Dr. Johnson, they go straight to James Boswell. The man has sadly overshadowed the author; and Samuel Johnson is not as much read as he is quoted, nor as closely appreciated as he is admired from afar. Indeed, his works fit Mark Twain's definition of a classic: "A book which people praise and don't read".
And that is a shame, since, as this book amply proves, Samuel Johnson is one of the best and most delightful writers the world has ever seen. He is deep in meaning, and felicitous in expression; never dull, always memorable. As the man himself, his prose has a fascinating quality to it: his architecturally built sentences expand for what sometimes feels like forever, linking up ideas and images, until a sudden burst of energy condenses the whole paragraph into a brilliant aphorism. Each phrase is balanced to perfection. Whenever obscure, Johnson usually illustrates his words with exact allusions, metaphors and similes; he particularly relishes in three-folded tropes: "To a community, sedition is a fever, corruption a gangrene, and idleness an atrophy" (pg 285); "In the bottle discontent seeks for comfort, cowardice for courage, and bashfulness for confidence" (pg 664). His acute and eminently quotable observations, whether about learned matters ("Notes are often necessary, but a necessary evil") or about human nature in general ("Many complain of neglect who never tried to attract regard ") are to be found throughout his whole oeuvre.
However, as painstakingly constructed as his writings might appear to be, the incredible truth is that he wrote many of them as he went along, without even reading them over, prodded by deadlines and debts. Johnson admitted having sometimes written half an essay on the spot, sent it to the presses, and finished the second half as the first half was being printed. He wrote his only novel, Rasselas, in the evenings of a week, and the first 48 pages of his wonderful Life of Savage in a sitting. ("But then again, I sat all night".) That nervous energy can be felt even in his calmer passages, lurking in between the lines, waiting for the inevitable outburst of indignation or angry disapproval to be released.
Regarding this edition, it is by far the best one-volume anthology of Johnson's works now available. It's biggest defect, in fact, consists merely in its inappropriate title: the very prologue happily admits the book is a wide-ranging sampling of Johnson's output and not just his "Major Works". Oxford just decided to re-name the anthology without touching the content, which explains why it still proudly includes Latin School exercises, extemporary verses, pieces "printed in full for the first time" and "lesser-known works". While I would have preferred having fewer, yet more complete pieces, the selection at least feels fresh and does not leave out any of Johnson's must-haves: his poetry (which, although often overlooked, has been praised by authors such as TS Eliot and Bloom), his timeless essays and remarkable biographies, the Preface to his Dictionary (of which some facsimile pages are included), the Preface to his edition of Shakespeare's plays (surely one of the best-written and most lucid examples of literary criticism ever published), Rasselas unabridged, and a few of his Lives of the Poets - which are, of course, quintessential Johnson. In other words, this book is a perfect introduction to those who are new to the author, and even the most avid Johnsonian will find in it something he has never read before, or an excuse to reread something he already knows by heart.
Samuel Johnson is someone towards whom one can feel many things, but not indifference. Hazlitt detested him and decried the "periodical revolution of his style", that search for equilibrium which often made Johnson turn from high praise to stern criticism in the blink of an eye; Carlyle crowned him "the Hero of the Man of Letters". It seems that people must either love the Doctor's elegance, or hate his pompous use of polysyllabic and Latinate words; either exalt his discernment, or deplore his intolerance. I am no exception to the rule. Simply put, I think reading Johnson means enjoying most of the pleasures Literature can give. That is why I consider he deserves more than our mere admiration: he deserves to be read. Certainly Samuel Johnson's achievements alone would make him remembered, but it's his writings that make him unforgettable.