Sunday, April 21, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Life of Samuel Johnson

There's little I can say about James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson that hasn't been said before, and better.  Thus, I won't attempt a real review, but I'll just put down some of my observations.  It is simply the best biography and one of the most entertaining books in the English language.  Along with Alexander Pope, Johnson was one of the two towering figures of 18th century literature.  Unfortunately, he's not as well-remembered today as he might be, I think because his greatest achievement, writing the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, has been supplanted by the OED and Webster and others.

He was also a poet, an essayist (almost singlehandedly penning both the Rambler and the Idler, two magazines of the time), a literary historian, one of the foremost Latin scholars of his century, and possibly the best English conversationalist ever.  That last point is especially made clear in Boswell's biography.  Boswell, a wealthy member of the Scottish gentry, and probably Johnson's best friend for the final 30 years of his life, accompanied his friend to dinner parties and on excursions around London and the English countryside, all the while recording everything Johnson said throughout the day in his journal.  Rarely a page goes by without one of Johnson's finely honed witticisms, trenchant observations of human life, or a funny or enlightening conversation with a companion.

And the companions Johnson had!  Just off the top of my head, Joshua Reynolds (foremost English painter of the 18th century), Edmund Burke (famous conservative philosopher), Oliver Goldsmith (leading playright), and Edward Gibbon (wrote The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire) turn up with regularity.  There are also cameos by King George III, Adam Smith, John Wesley, and dozens of others I can't remember at the moment.

That cast of characters is one reason this book is what I refer to as a "Shortcut to Smartness."  By this, I mean a book that so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas that it is like a college course in and of itself.  First, you learn everything about Samuel Johnson himself.  Second, you learn a lot about all his famous friends.  Third, you improve your grasp of 18th century British history, for many historical events are referenced.  Fourth, more so than in most biographies, you learn about everyday life in the past, because the book covers not only the major events of Johnson's life but also the little day-to-day oddities and intersting happenings.  Fifth, you become wiser about human nature and the best ways to live, for Johnson's insight can't help but sink in.  (In the future on this blog, I'll talk about more books I think of as Shortcuts to Smartness.)

Now, Life of Johnson is a thick book, but don't be intimidated!  This is my second time through, and it's taken me more than a year.  But that's not at all because it's so difficult to read, but because I read twenty or thirty pages at a time and then put it aside for a few days.  It's actually the perfect book to pick up and put down like that as so much of it is episodic--a few pages are devoted to, say, a visit to Johnson's alma mater, Oxford, or an evening meeting of the Literary Club, or Johnson's thoughts on the occasion of a friend whose son was hanged, etc..  But I always come back to it because it's so funny and wise.  I think the perfect reader for this book would be an aspiring English or history major during the summer before college--it would give a student such an edge up on the competition in so many ways.  But really, any adult who wants to learn about a witty, humane, learned man who had a huge impact on English letters would find Life of Johnson to be of interest.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What I'm Reading: Compulsion

Compulsion, by Heidi Ayarbe, is a YA novel about Jake, a senior in high school with a serious case of obsessive/compulsive disorder (OCD).  Jake is a standout soccer player being recruited by several colleges, but except for those brief periods of time when he's on the field and they disappear, his life is completely dominated by a number of compulsions: a need to manipulate numbers in his head, to obsessively track the time, to brush his teeth a certain way, chew his food a certain number of times, take a precise number of steps to descend a stairway, etc.

His compulsions get in the way of his social life, and only Luc, a fellow soccer player he's known since kindergarten, puts up with his bizarre behavior.  Jake is routinely late to class because he can't leave his house until he's performed his waking ritual a certain way.  Despite the fact that pretty girls  practically throw themselves at him as the school's star athlete, he has never had a romantic relationship--touching other people is too germy.

Still, there is one person who could help: Mera, a weird girl who used to play with Luc and Jake when they were kids, but is now a school outcast due to her aggressive vegetarianism and take-no-bull attitude. She seems to understand his problems and instinctively does the right things to calm him. It's too bad she's not one of the popular kids.

He can't even describe his problem to anybody--he feels he has to maintain his image as an athlete with a perfect life, and his OCD in no way fits into that agenda.  Anyway, he's not aware that his compulsions are a disease.  His family is working-class and even though his mother is positively crippled by her own OCD, she's apparently never been to a doctor about it.  This was actually the weakest point in the book for me--surely at some point somebody in the family would have seen an episode of Oprah or some other television show about OCD and realize it can be treated?

Other than that point, which can probably be explained away though it wasn't addressed, the book is powerful and emotionally affecting.  It really resonated with me because I've had OCD tendencies all my life.  In late elementary school, I even suffered from mental number manipulation in my head, just like Jake.  I suppose I have/had a mild case, but there was a point when much of my time and energy was taken up with this compulsion.  I thought it was a bad habit, and at one point decided to break myself of it.  Over a period of weeks I forced myself to stop manipulating numbers whenever my brain would start to do it, an exhausting effort which became easier over time.  Maybe if Jake had fought it earlier on, his OCD wouldn't later have become so all-consuming?

I assume my wife brought this home from the library because of my own OCD issues.  Nevertheless, I could recommend this book to anybody who wants to learn what it's like to have OCD from inside the head of a sufferer.  I can attest from personal experience that the book's treatment of it is realistic.  It's not a "fun" book, indeed it's fairly harrowing, but it's quite accessible and readable.  It's aimed at teens but I think adults interested in the issue, or who simply want a powerful, well-written story, could read it as well.