Friday, January 14, 2011

Samuel Johnson, Internet Star

In the history of Coffee Culture, one man stands above all
others - no not that shepherd monk who realized the goats
right after eating coffee beans were suddenly alert and
happy - but Samuel Johnson.

The first European coffee houses were in Venice, and it's
 not hard to guess why.  Venice was the most cosmopolitan
city in the world in the 17th century, and La Serenissima
had no qualms about adopting Turkish habits. 

In England, various coffee houses developed into such
institutions as The London Stock Exchange, Lloyds of
London, Sothebys, and Christie's.  A king of England
even tried to close them for fomenting sedition, but
they survived, some even sprouting up for Tories, to
counterbalance the ones catering to Whigs and radicals.
Significantly they were places to read political literature
too.  Political movements formed among their tables. 

Still if  the Golden Age of the Coffee Shop is now usually
taken to be centered in late 18th century London, the reason
was simple:  Johnson & Boswell.  Johnson was there to
talk, and Boswell was there to take it all down.
(For those who are sticklers for historical accuracy,
we're talking about the legend that has shaped our
collective imagination, not the historical record.)

In his own life, Johnson was first a writer, an
essayist who wrote and published his thoughts
under the brand name, The Rambler.  It would be
easy to call it a proto-blog.  So lets do it.  There
were others, most famously The Tatler and The
Spectator.   But even in his life, he found himself
becoming more famous for his conversation than
any other accomplishment, except perhaps his

The problem with conversation of course is that it
doesn't have lasting power.  If Boswell had not
written down so much of Johnson's conversation,
Johnson would not hold the place in literary history
he does.  To say Boswell wrote the Life of Johnson
is misleading.  More accurately he collaborated
with Johnson, so much of the biography is Boswell's
writing down as accurately as possible what
Johnson said.

It's impossible not to see in Johnson's writing career
an anticipation of what happens to so many writers
today when they go on the net.   To our point in
history - it's bound to change - most writers come on
the net first looking to promote carefully crafted,
painstakingly put together work; but especially with
the rise of social media sharing tools, they find themselves
caught up in something which feels much more like
conversation than old media writing in which the
author(ity) lays down the line.

And the computer is there to be Boswell and capture
all our ephemera.  More and more writers, especially
those who don't have agents to list in their twitter profiles,
are beginning to think of a legacy in their tweets and
posts, many put down quickly or written under great
emotion, or aimed very directly at a specific person -
and almost all designed to be read soon, very soon, after
they are written.

Given how quickly so many other writers are also
adding to the superabundance of thoughts and life
captured on the web, a writer knows that if a message
doesn't reach people right when it comes out, it's
highly unlikely it will find an audience later.

But of course, the net is basically free.  We can store
our work there - where it can be found (how lucky
Emily Dickinson was that no one threw her desk out) -
and someday, some conscientious reader or scholar
following a series of intriguing clues, will discover
the real work, the essential  writings, the ones
stored on the net,  but not of the net.

The hope is not completely idle.  The Life of
Johnson has led to some to want to read The
Work of Johnson.  It's doubtful his Life of Savage
would be have been read by even half the small
number of very appreciative readers who have
taken it on if Boswell had not not digitized
Johnson's conversation and posted it in
The Life Of Johnson.

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