Not being a literary critic, I don't know if it's a good thing when an author introduces an obscure reference into the narrative, but I did enjoy this one while reading Misfortune
by Wesley Stace:
Anonyma's budget was unlimited, and the very first acquisition, which took the catalog number J.i., was a dictionary that had recently been published and, coming in two volumes, folio, cost four pounds and fifteen shillings in boards.
What could be more luxurious than an unlimited budget when building a collection? And what better place to start than Johnson's Dictionary? Our folio copy is priced a touch higher than four pounds fifteen shillings. If your bookshelf isn't big enough for the folio ? the pages measure 16.5 inches high ? we also have the eighth edition in quarto and the most charming duodecimo set imaginable.
Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, written between 1745 and 1755, was not the first written in English, but the timing for such a project couldn't have been better. Literacy was on the rise in the mid-eighteenth century, and books were becoming a more integrated part of that landscape. Plus, Johnson was a celebrity, known for his learning and his wit.
The first edition contained the definitions for over 42,000 words. (Knowing this, the "Ink and Incapability" episode of Blackadder is even funnier.)
The famous example from the Dictionary is, of course, what Johnson wrote about himself:
Lexicographer ? n. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.
Oats ? n. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
Johnson's most famous biographer, James Boswell, was a lowland Scot. His relationship with Johnson is worth reading about, as his monumental Life of Johnson is a work of biography as famous as the Dictionary. Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task is a fluid and fascinating look at the relationship between subject, biographer, and book.
As if the Dictionary and Boswell's famous Life weren't epitaph enough, it was said of Samuel Johnson that "the value of his conversation was widely acknowledged."
What if the same could be said about more of us?