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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Dr.Johnson's Dictionary
(Defining the World)

Henry Hitchings

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Defining the World

Title: Dr.Johnson's Dictionary
Author: Henry Hitchings
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005
Length: 259 pages
Availability: Defining the World - US
Dr.Johnson's Dictionary - UK
Defining the World - Canada
  • UK title: Dr.Johnson's Dictionary
  • US title: Defining the World
  • UK sub-title: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World
  • US sub-title: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary
  • With numerous illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : engaging introduction to Johnson and his dictionary

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 16/4/2005 Andrew Motion
The LA Times A 23/10/2005 Ken Smith
New Statesman A+ 16/5/2005 Will Self
The NY Times . 12/11/2005 William Grimes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/12/2005 Charles McGrath
The New Yorker . 7/11/2005 .
The Observer A 24/4/2005 Jemma Read
San Francisco Chronicle . 30/10/2005 Chuck Leddy
The Spectator . 9/4/2005 Sarah Burton
Sunday Times . 27/3/2005 John Carey
The Telegraph . 10/4/2005 Kate Chisholm
TLS . 13/4/2005 Thomas Keymer
Wall Street Journal . 12/10/2005 Stephen Miller

  Review Consensus:

  Full of praise

  From the Reviews:
  • "In broad outline, the Dictionary-making story is as well-known as the Johnson story itself. But here again Hitchings is nimble. That's to say, he tells us what the doctor and his team intended to do, and shows how they did it, but surrounds the facts with enough detail to make the final triumph -- in spite of the innumerable delays and doubts -- seem little short of miraculous. (...) Will the book do for the dictionary what Longitude did for navigating ? Probably not: the story doesn't have the necessary element of surprise. But it does have abiding interest, good jokes, elegant solutions, and a wealth of curiosities to ponder." - Andrew Motion, The Guardian

  • "Hitchings tells this overlooked story engagingly in a well-written, intelligently organized and thoroughly readable book. (...) Hitchings is at his best when revealing Johnson's methods, discerning his intent and making us appreciate the task of turning the nightmarish muddle of English into a model of organization." - Ken Smith, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Henry Hitchings's book on Samuel Johnson's mighty Dictionary is so good, so apposite, so chewy and edible, that I felt as if I were rereading it on my first pass. How, one wonders, given the mighty size of the Johnson industry, could it be that this particular book was not written decades ago, if not centuries ?" - Will Self, New Statesman

  • "Mr. Hitchings does a good job of extracting the flavor." - William Grimes, The New York Times

  • "(C)oncise and informative. (...) Defining the World is itself organized in dictionary fashion, as a series of shortish chapters arranged in alphabetical order (...) and this proves to be an inspired way of navigating through Johnson's text" - Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Hitchings’ sprightly book about the dictionary gives a full picture of Johnson during a difficult decade of melancholy toil." - The New Yorker

  • "Hitchings sees the Dictionary as a dialogue between Johnson and his times. (...) Hitchings's text is alive with colourful anecdote, local and historical reference, details on 18th-century fashion, the rise of commercialism, attitudes to sport and leisure. With amusing and eloquent examples, he brings to life a society under the microscope, using definitions from Johnson's Dictionary to catalogue an intricate portrait of language and social trends. (...) It is impossible to read this vivacious book and not be enthused to return to the original. " - Jemma Read, The Observer

  • "Although the book had a huge impact, it had its drawbacks, too, as Hitchings makes clear. (...) Hitchings skillfully re-creates Johnson's beloved London" - Chuck Leddy, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "His morality is a corrective to our destructively unequal society, and it matters, in the end, far more than any dictionary. Hitchings's book, among its other excellences, never loses sight of that." - John Carey, Sunday Times

  • "Dr Johnson's Dictionary is also a snapshot of social life in Britain in the mid-18th century as it emerged from a rural, superstitious, uncommercial world to one in which urban values and pursuits prevailed. (...) The great strength of Hitchings's book is the compliment he pays to Johnson by so lavishly quoting from the Dictionary." - Kate Chisholm, The Telegraph

  • "Henry Hitchings has added a rich, lively and attractive book to this recent trend (.....) The pervasiveness of Johnson’s personality throughout the Dictionary justifies Hitchings’s approach to his subject, which is biographical above all. He meticulously delineates the stages of composition, connects the work skilfully to other areas of Johnson’s output, and is original and persuasive in finding what he calls "a streak of autobiography embedded in the illustrative quotations" (.....) There are also faults, including local errors (...) and one or two grating clichés" - Thomas Keymer, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Samuel Johnson's 18th century Dictionary of the English Language is a remarkable and significant achievement. Essentially one man's work, it was a groundbreaking and influential book, a widely used reference work (even, to some extent, to this day) that helped to shape the concept of what a dictionary should be.
       Henry Hitchings tells the story of Johnson and his dictionary in chapters whose headings are arranged alphabetically -- a somewhat forced structure that works better for certain sections than others ('To Preface', 'Publication', and 'Reception' being the rare sequence that fit the narrative perfectly). Johnson figures particularly prominently as the man behind the dictionary -- his personality, prejudices, and interests colouring every page --, and so Hitchings' account necessarily also doubles as a biography. Given how much has been written about the man, it's hard to strike the proper balance as to what information is relevant and how to arrange it, but Hitchings' does a good enough job of presenting the man and the relevant details of his life. But the real fun is in the dictionary itself.
       Describing a dictionary, how it was put together, and the aspects of particular interest is difficult, but here Hitchings' thematic chapters pay off again. The account as a whole proceeds roughly chronologically, but as chapters focus on particular elements they reach ahead to the finished product (and elsewhere), making for a rich, entertaining -- if also scattered -- book-story. Hitchings offers a good deal of detail (and anecdote), mixing much together but still keeping a narrative thread going -- considerably harder than it looks.
       Hitchings is very good at pointing out the different aspects of interest concerning Johnson's book and approach, including both the flaws (some of the circular definitions) and the particular strengths of Johnson's approach in presenting a word and supporting quotes, moving:

from the most tangible and literal sense of the word to the most abstract, metaphoric or specialized. What we end up with is a genealogy of meaning. (...) His definitions, structured in this way, chart the role of human needs, enthusiasms and observations in expanding words' semantic ranbge. More generally, they illustrate the way a changing world changes language.
       Many aspects of dictionary-making are touched upon, from the difficulty of covering simple words ("The entry for 'to take' occupies five pages and amounts to 8,000 words, with Johnson discriminating 134 sense of the verb") to the financing of such a publishing-endeavour in those times.
       Hitchings seems to have torn apart the text every possible way, and offers all sorts of surprising observations; of particular interest are the authors and works Johnson quotes in his definitions (and the ones he ignores). Johnson even used quotes from his own works (and, remarkably, apparently managed to misquote himself).
       Often Dr.Johnson's Dictionary reads more like a collection of interesting facts and word-play than a history book or biography, though Hitchings tries his best to keep a narrative going. Regardless, the material is fascinating enough (and the presentation solid enough) to consistently hold one's interest. Good and interesting fun.

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Dr.Johnson's Dictionary: Reviews: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Henry Hitchings was born in 1974. He wrote his dissertation on Samuel Johnson.

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© 2005-2006 the complete review

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