Samuel Johnson: a Life

Samuel Johnson may have said of biography that "no species of writing" was more "worthy of cultivation", but any author seeking to assess his life faces two formidable challenges. After Shakespeare, Johnson is the most biographised English author, and all writers must labour in the shadow of James Boswell.

David Nokes's biography attempts to distinguish itself by starkly depicting its subject's physical and psychological woes. Nokes does well to emphasise the disparity between Johnson's physical appearance - "shaking, twitching, pockmarked, half blind" - and his exquisite turn of phrase.

Less impressively, Johnson's reactionary Toryism and sectarianism pass largely uncriticised by the author. Instead, the Johnson who emerges is an intensely vulnerable character, haunted by solitude and riven with self-loathing, but whose overpowering voice surpassed his many demons.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush