JAMES Boswell's biography of Samuel Johnson could probably...

salmagundi

February 16, 1994

JAMES Boswell's biography of Samuel Johnson could probably be classified as one of those essential literary works that few people actually read.

Still, the odd browse through the weighty (about a couple pounds) tome can offer a passage or two of insight and amusement even for late-20th century readers. For example, this one from April 1779, in which Boswell recounts the opinionated doctor's views on the beverages served at a dinner party:

"Johnson harangued upon the qualities of different liquors; and spoke with great contempt of claret, as so weak, that 'a man would be drowned by it before it made him drunk.' He was persuaded to drink one glass of it, that he might judge, not from recollection, which might be dim, but from immediate sensation. He shook his head, and said, 'Poor stuff! No, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero (smiling) must drink brandy . . . ' I reminded him how heartily he and I used to drink wine together, when we were first acquainted; and how I used to have a head-ache after sitting up with him. He did not like to have this recalled, or, perhaps, thinking that I boasted improperly, resolved to have a witty stroke at me; 'Nay, Sir, it was not the wine that made your head ache, but the sense that I put into it.' 'What, Sir! will sense make the head ache?' 'Yes, Sir, (with a smile) when it is not used to it.' . . . I used to say, that as [Johnson] had given me a thousand pounds in praise, he had a good right now and then to take a guinea from me."

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