A word to the wise

The wisdom of Samuel Johnson reverberates down the centuries. David Bernstein pays homage to his ideas and explores their relevance to communications

‘I have Johnsonised the land.’ That’s not a mayoral utterance by Boris (aka BoJo), but a boast by James Boswell in the preface to the second edition of his life of Samuel Johnson published in 1793. By then he was sure of the success of his enterprise, described by his successor as editor, Edmond Malone, as ‘one of the most instructive and entertaining works in the English language’. The 1953 edition called Johnson ‘a living influence even today’. He remains so to this day, on the 300th anniversary of his birth.

Boswell trusted his readers would ‘not only talk, but think Johnson’. I find his relevance everywhere. Should you need an epitaph for the Millennium Dome, seek no further than ‘nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment’. Want help with a presentation? Remember/ ‘Example is always more efficacious than precept’. Preoccupied with change management? Mark this: ‘Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.’

Writing was his trade, words his tools. He believed that while writing required effort, reading should not. ‘A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good.’ The task was that of the writer. ‘A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.’

No writer was more dogged. ‘A man will turn over half a library to make one book.’ You wonder how voluminous was Johnson’s turnover in making his magnum opus, ‘A Dictionary, with a Grammar and History, of the English Language’.

The drudgery paid dividends. As any writer will attest, ‘what is written without effort is in general read without pleasure’. Johnson thought pleasure a commendable aim – and knew where to find it. ‘The great source of pleasure is variety’ (then comes a line that could have been read at the end of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s conference speech) ‘uniformity must tire at last, though it be uniformity of excellence’. He advocated the metaphor. ‘It conveys the meaning more luminously and generally with a perception of delight.’

Johnson has much to teach those of us in marketing communications. Perhaps his best-known maxim is one that writers are reluctant to accept: ‘Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’

‘Knowledge,’ he says, ‘is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.’ Of conversation in taverns he says, ‘I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in the conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight.’ He valued feedback/ ‘I never think I have hit hard, unless it rebounds.’

A rigorous critic, he would have made a superb, if feared, account director, writing tight briefs and analysing their outcomes, as this piece of curriculum vitae illustrates. ‘There are two things which I am confident I can do very well: one is an introduction to any literary work, stating what it is to contain, and how it should be executed in the most perfect manner; the other is a conclusion shewing from various causes why the execution has not been equal to what the author promised to himself and to the public.’

He was a lover of language, not for its own sake, but for what it represents. ‘Language is the dress of thought.’ Much of Johnson’s thought we owe to the biography, to Boswell’s Johnson, the original BoJo.

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