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Johnson's copy of Richard Twiss’s 'Travels Through Portugal and Spain, in 1772 and 1773'

Samuel Johnson was presented this book by the author on 28 March 1775. On the fly-leaf the author’s dedication and Johnson’s response can be seen. Just 10 days after receiving this book Johnson dined with the Literary Club in London, which contained some of the most famous thinkers and writers of the time, such as Charles James Fox (M.P.), James Boswell and the painter Joshua Reynolds. Here, Johnson expressed how he was quite impressed with Twiss’ Travels, and Boswell recorded Johnson saying that “they are as good as the first book of travels that you will take up. There are as good as those of Keysler or Blainville; nay, as Addison’s, if you accept the learning. They are not as good as Brydone’s, but they are better than Pokocke’s.”

Johnson’s moderate praise of the book should be seen in relation to his attitude to travel literature at this time. As Johnson travelled throughout his life, he demanded high standards in the travel books he read. He was annoyed (as recorded in Boswell’s Life of Johnson) that the current age of explorations and grand tours had led to many “narrations of travellers” which “disappoint their readers”. Johnson also stressed that these rushed journeys led to hastily written books which were too descriptive and lacked reflection. Therefore, the praise he gave to Twiss’ Travels shows that he was pleasantly surprised with its quality.

Johnson admitted to the rest of the Literary Club that he had not read the entire book, stressing that “I do not suppose that what is in the pages which are closed is worse than what is in the open pages”. However, just because he did not read the whole book does not mean that he did not enjoy it or understand it. Johnson learned to read books incredibly quickly, and he had the unusual ability of being able to read whole pages at a glance whilst still retaining the gist of what was being said. Therefore, Johnson rarely needed to read a book all the way through to form an opinion on it.

This form of scanning, or perusal, reading was practiced by Johnson a lot in later life. Whereas in his youth he had read books thoroughly, either by curiously reading romantic novels and plays or by doing hard study reading on educational texts, in his later years he had less time to read as most of his time was spent writing. Also, the older Johnson read texts lightly as he increasingly felt embarrassed about being seen in public engrossed in romantic fiction or educational works. Perusing texts allowed him to continue his love of reading in public without feeling self-conscious and it ensured he could read multiple books at once without finishing them. Therefore, Johnson was more likely to read works for reading’s sake, as he did when he read newspapers, or he would scan books for useful information, as he had done when he read Twiss’ Travels.

Museum Number: 2001.951                         Published: (London, 1775)


Quotation mark

I should as soon have thought of building a man of war, as of collecting such a museumQuotation mark

Samuel Johnson signature

Bust of Samuel Johnson by Joseph Nollekens RA, 1777

Published: 8 Jan 18

Plaster Cast. Museum number 2000.63, Donated by Mrs EL Browne, 1904 Read More...