ISBN is

978-0-374-11561-6 / 0374115613

Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson

by Sisman, Adam

Publisher:Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Edition:Hardcover

Language:English

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About the book:

Adam Sisman's task is almost as "presumptuous" as the one he anatomizes with such precision and grace in his text. He has attempted a biography of a biography--and not just any biography, but the most famous one in the English language. From its publication in 1791, James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson has been acclaimed (and reviled) as the first truly modern biography, a book that reveals its subject with unprecedented intimacy, faults and all. The 20th-century discoveries of quantities of manuscripts, including Boswell's extremely frank journals, sparked greater interest in the man once dismissed as a mere recorder of Johnson's pithy conversation, but now shown to be an ambitious writer in his own right. More to the point for Sisman, these documents made it possible to scrutinize in detail the writing of The Life of Samuel Johnson. "Why did he want so much to write about Johnson, and why did he persist in the face of so much adversity?" asks Sisman. "How did he set about his task? Did his ideas change as his writing progressed? How did he evaluate the varied and sometimes contradictory material he gathered?" These questions are still relevant to biographers today, and Sisman addresses them with sensitivity and acuity. He begins by cogently sketching the unlikely friendship begun in 1763 between a renowned 53-year-old London man of letters and a naive 22-year-old Scotsman, then moves on to examine in depth the seven years after Johnson's death during which Boswell battled depression, bouts of heavy drinking, and venereal disease to shape masses of material into a book "that stands next to other biographies as Shakespeare stands beside other playwrights: towering above them all." The result is a thoughtful and revealing analysis of the creative process by which biography, as much as fiction, is shaped. --Wendy Smith

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