The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life
'Hitchings is extremely good at unravelling Johnson’s most bullish assertions . . . lucid and empathetic, scholarly but lively. A model Johnsonian, in fact.' The Times
The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life is a source of profound good sense about what it means to teach, read, write and travel. More than that, though, Henry Hitchings continually translates Samuel Johnson's experience of poverty, scorn, pain and madness into a rich understanding of how to be.
Samuel Johnson was a critic, an essayist, a poet and a biographer. He was also, famously, the compiler of the first good English dictionary, published in 1755. A polymath and a great conversationalist, his intellectual and social curiosity were boundless. Yet he was a deeply melancholy man, haunted by dark thoughts, sickness and a diseased imagination. In his own life, both public and private, he sought to choose a virtuous and prudent path, negotiating everyday hazards and temptations. His writings and aphorisms illuminate what it means to lead a life of integrity, and his experience, abundantly documented by him and by others (such as James Boswell and Hester Thrale), is a lesson in the art of regulating the mind and the body.
Johnson’s story touches on many themes that have enduring significance. He was, and remains, a perceptive commentator on the vanity of human wishes, the rewards and dangers of charity, the need to cultivate kindness, the complexities of family life (especially marriage), the effects of boredom and the fleeting nature of pleasure. He writes and speaks incisively and humanely about the ego, ambition, hypocrisy, fallibility and disorders of the mind, as well as the corrosive effects of obsession, the precariousness of fame and the skulduggery of the literary world.
Hitchings himself could be said to provide positive proof of Dr Johnson’s benign influence on the world. As this delightful book goes on, his own aphorisms grow more like Dr Johnson’s, as though infected with that robust sympathy and intelligence. Looking through my notes for this review, I sometimes found it hard to recall which phrase was coined by H Hitchings, and which by S Johnson.
Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday
Witty, engaging ... Hitchings proves an amiably convincing advocate for his hero’s enduring significance.
Nick Rennison, Sunday Times
'A sprightly companion and guide, full of enjoyable surprises and learned digressions even for those who think they know all there is to know about the great man.'
Christopher Hart, TLS