READING AS BUTCHERY

Samuel Johnson, who grew up in a bookshop, defined “bookworm” in his Dictionary as

A worm or mite that eats holes in books, chiefly when damp ...
A student too closely given to books; a reader without judgment.

His father, Michael, bought for his Lichfield bookshop at considerable expense the library of the late William Stanley, ninth Earl of Derby, almost three thousand volumes.

Michael Johnson was not a great businessman: his son recalls that some of the earl’s books were still on the shelves forty years later.Young Samuel learned to read early and then wandered at will through his father’s stock in the premises, which was both shop and home, and which still stands. Biographer John Wain wrote:

Today, when we make our decorous pilgrimage to the house ... climbing up the polished wooden stairs and peering into the small but beautifully proportioned rooms, it seems commodious enough. But when it had to house a book business with miles of shelves, the four Johnsons and their two or three servants, and all the clutter with which human beings surround themselves, there must have been times when it was bursting at the seams. All three of the Johnson males were large; when they squeezed past each other on the stairs, or in the narrow spaces between crowded bookshelves, they must have seemed like mastiffs in a terrier’s kennel.

Johnson’s early upbringing seems to have affected him profoundly in later life. He was an unhappy child, who sought refuge from his family in books, an ungainly youth and an ugly man. Women admired him for his mind, but were unwilling to venture further down.

His attitude in later life to books, as one might expect from someone who grew up surrounded by them, was to treat them as things to be mined for information rather than objects of reverence.

Henry Hitchings, from whose splendid book (Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Book that Defined the World), this information is derived, refers to Johnson’s “agricultural way” with books, writing:

The imagery that attaches to Johnson’s reading habits is notably visceral: surgical perhaps, but veering towards butchery. He spoke to Boswell of ripping the heart out of a book “like a Turk” ... His Quaker sparring partner, Mary Knowles, with whom he liked to argue about women’s rights, thought he knew how to read “better than anyone”: he gets at the substance of a book directly; he tears the heart out of it”.

This did not go down well with everyone. Johnson didn’t always have the money to buy the books he wanted. His friend and former pupil the actor David Garrick once lent him a set of rare Shakespearean quartos. They were eventually returned to him somewhat pulled apart and with copious notes in pencil in the margins. On Garrick objecting to this liberty, Johnson assured him that the notes could be easily removed by rubbing with breadcrumbs. Some time later Johnson requested a renewal of the loan. Garrick refused.

02/11/12