Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Trimming Boswell

It was only at the last minute that I decided the Biography seminar ought to be actually reading Boswell, rather than just talking around him – a biography course without Boswell like a modern poetry course without Pound (oh yeah, like the one Wyatt Prunty taught when I was an undergrad). But golly, he's so long: the RW Chapman Oxford World's Classics I have clocks in a bit over 1500 pages. After much mousing around, I discovered that the only complete Boswell on the internet had only been scanned thru about 1773, with great chunks still to go.

So, with about a week & a half to spare before the beginning of the semester, I put in an order for the most readily available Penguin abridgment, edited by Christopher Hibbert. I have a constitutional antipathy to assigning abridged texts, but this one isn't bad: Hibbert trims the loquacious Scot down to about 350 pages, in large part by savagely cutting all of the letters Boswell includes. There's also a lively introduction & some (not enough) explanatory notes at the end.

Examining the two books side by side, I'm struck by the judiciousness of Hibbert's abridging: he's not just cutting pages & paragraphs, but even extraneous sentences within paragraphs. Makes for a much tighter read – even gives it something approaching biographical form.

But then again, we don't read Boswell for form, do we? We don't even really read him for story. After all, the Great Cham (or as I call him in my more bilious moments, the Fat Bastard) got born at the beginning, & is going to die at the end. If we want Johnson's life as a psychological progression, we read Walter Jackson Bate; if we want a judicious assessment of his literary career & importance, we read Robert DeMaria. We read Boswell, first & last, for the anecdotes & the conversation. And it pains me find some of my faves missing from Hibbert's Boswell. The abridged Boswell – any abridged Boswell – is like ordering your favorite stiff drink & finding the bartender's shorted you on the liquor.