Reading is my second favourite pastime - but rereading is my favourite. Henry Hitchings's book on Samuel Johnson's mighty Dictionary is so good, so apposite, so chewy and edible, that I felt as if I were rereading it on my first pass. How, one wonders, given the mighty size of the Johnson industry, could it be that this particular book was not written decades ago, if not centuries? Other writers have their guttering flames kept alight by a handful of devotees, but Johnson's has grown into a con- flagration stoked by sweating hordes of academics.
Why should this be so? In part, as Hitchings observes, it is because Johnson was the first English literary celebrity; or, to be strictly accurate, the first English writer to achieve genuine notoriety, having descended not from some ivory tower, but from the teeming garrets of Grub Street. How this happened Hitchings also limns in: Johnson was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. G K Chesterton said of his own era (although he might as well have said it of ours) that "the English love a talented mediocrity", but in the mid-18th century the burgeoning and increasingly self-conscious English middle class needed a genius of the middling sort to love - and this became Sam Johnson.
Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, the very epicentre of Middle England. The lineaments of his life are well known precisely because he became the ambulatory test bed for his friend James Boswell's ground-breaking experiment in biography. All biographers of the living have a certain ghoulish- ness about them - standing by the roadside of life, waiting for their subject to drive by, so that when he crashes they can write it down - and Boswell, whose instabilities of character were legion, was prototypical in this as well. However, in his drive to mythologise Johnson, Boswell can be forgiven his inaccuracies, for as Hitchings remarks: "The Johnson of legend is Johnson the pensioner, free to ramble, idle and adventure, to travel with Boswell to the Hebrides and sleep on hay in his riding coat."
Hitchings's task is to rescue Johnson from Boswell's atten-tions, much as Adam Sisman rescued the biographer from his own self-mythologising in Boswell's Presumptuous Task (2000), a logical companion piece to this work. The Johnson of the Dictionary was never known to Boswell, and as the older man was ill-disposed to animadvert on his younger self, Boswell got such basics as the great man's working methods on the Dictionary glaringly wrong. Not so Hitchings. He presents us with a man who was above all a hack, and who rode to prominence on the mechanical horse of the printing press. It was the explo-sion of print culture in the mid-18th century that made Johnson a household name.
This is the Johnson who, in the 1750s, as well as compiling the Dictionary, churned out 10,000 words a day in order to put food on the table - and not just his own. He was, as Hitchings notes, "prodigiously generous, and generously profligate". This is the Johnson who single-handedly wrote an entire, twice-weekly periodical for two years (The Rambler) on top of innumerable other prefaces, introductions, feuilletons and puffs. Not forgetting moral and political essays, the odd satirical poem and a verse drama. Hitchings relates that one Archibald "Horrible" Campbell, a ship's purser, wrote his parodic attack upon Johnson after being confined on a long journey with only The Rambler and the Dictionary for company; he averred that his nemesis had written the former "to make a dictionary necessary, and afterwards compile[d] his dictionary to explain his Rambles".
"Horrible" was on to something here: it was precisely the new ubiquity of the printed word which made necessary a work that would serve to regularise orthography and semantics. The French had their dictionary, laboriously compiled by a posse of academicians over decades; the Italians were under way with theirs; but where was the English equivalent? Into this breach stepped Johnson who, with the jingoism that was to become one of his abiding legacies, claimed he would be able to complete the monumental task in a mere three years, calculating that the endeavours of one Englishman were worth those of 40 Frenchmen.
In fact, it took him far longer, even with the help of six Scots amanuenses to do the tedious graft of clipping and transcribing his references and quotations. In part, as Hitchings explains, this was because Johnson realised early on the impossibility of creating a prescriptive dictionary that would act to regularise the very use of the language as well as its typographic representation. Initially Johnson feared that his own beloved English - the golden age of which he located during the reign of Elizabeth - would become as incomprehensible to the readers of a future age as Chaucerian English was to his own. At an intuitive level, however, he soon grasped that the ceaseless motion of the tongue was quite unstoppable, and the best he could do was to describe what writers meant by the words they employed, rather than tell the Dictionary's readers what words they had to speak.
Hitchings locates the Dictionary within the great European tradition of the Encyclopaedists, and takes us into a close understanding of the way this "impoverished encyclopaedia" - to quote Umberto Eco - was compiled. Both available space and inclination prevent me from detailing all of this now; buy Hitchings's book and find out for yourself. Suffice to say that the trip to the source of this mighty Amazon of verbiage is never dull. Readers of Simon Winchester's two works on the Oxford English Dictionary, and fans of the new descriptive social history exemplified by Claire Tomalin's book on Samuel Pepys, will find ample stimulation here, as Hitchings skilfully melds the practice of compiling the dictionary with the biography of its author.
Hitchings also deploys a neat combination of demotic, contemporary cultural references - from Harry Potter to Blackadder - with recondite phrasing to get across the ongoing influence and importance of his subject's achievement. It is not often - except on the wilder shores of cultural studies - that one comes across phrases such as "disingenuously poised" and "in epitome at least" alongside mentions of X-Men and The Lord of the Rings. Hitchings, whose doctoral thesis was on Johnson, can be forgiven his unabashed adulation for his cash cow, but to the rest of us, despite his relatively enlightened positions on women's rights and welfarism, Johnson's High Anglican, Tory sensibilities can often jar. Yet Hitchings is unstinting in acknowledging the Dictionary's limitations as well as its manifold strengths.
One personal gripe: Hitchings points out that, with a mere 42,773 entries, the Dictionary may seem pretty sparse (the first edition of the OED managed more than half a million), especially given that he believes the average, educated person to have a working vocabulary of 50,000 words, together with the ability to recognise at least 10,000 more. Now, I am no sesquipedalian myself, and contrary to what some critics of my work imagine, I do not spend my time wilfully perusing the dictionary for recondite terms, nor sneakily coining neologisms, yet I am constantly being accosted by readers who tell me that although they enjoy what I write, they have to have a dictionary on hand in order to understand it. Hitchings writes - with reference to Johnson's 6,000 quotations in the Dictionary from the idiosyncratic work of Sir Thomas Browne - that "Any writer with an enthusiasm for the outlandish will chafe against boundaries of ordinary usage: to write about extreme experiences, you need to reach for vivid, unfamiliar vocabulary . . ." But judging by my own, limited, empirical sample, I have to tell him that there is no enthusiasm for such chafing in the present era, and that if a Johnson were to arise among us now - let alone a Browne - he would be resolutely gored, a fate that Hitchings's own work will, I hope, evade.
Will Self's Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe is published in paperback by Penguin (£7.99)