Review: “A Book of One’s Own” by Thomas Mallon

Thumbs up for A Book of One’s Own: People and their Diaries by Thomas Mallon. Literary history.

It is a crying shame this book is out of print. After contemplating at length what to say about it, I will have to bow to the supremacy of Phyllis Rose’s review on the back: “This is more than a book about diaries; it’s a celebration of life and the many ways people have of savoring it.” Yes, that. Mallon is the perfect guide: he is funny, erudite, and generous. He does not impose himself too much, but he remains willing to call B.S. when necessary. You will find your reading list expanding monstrously. And if you don’t already keep a diary, you will want to start. Highly recommended for any writer.

Once they’re [in Scotland], Boswell can scarcely believe he’s done it. There’s Dr. Johnson eating Scottish spelding, and hating it! Dr. Johnson waxing sensible and obnoxious on such topics as Scottish emigration, the phoniness of the Ossian poems, the pathetic state of Scotland before her union with England – in front of Scots! In Scotland! His guide admits that in point of fact neither one of them “had much taste for rural beauties,” but that hardly matters on a trip whose purpose was less delectation for the eye than provocation of the spleen. Boswell says he regretted how Johnson “did not practice the art of accommodating himself to different sorts of people,” but any reader of the Life knows this for the disingenuous piffle it is. Getting a rise out of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., is the whole point of the thing. Boswell is certain that Johnson won’t get on with the Scottish judge Lord Monboddo; so he makes sure they pay a call. When the two actually hit it off, he is clearly disappointed. But on a journey three months long there are plenty of opportunities for upsetting a sage: trick him into admitting a fondness for oatmeal – after what he said about Scots and oatmeal in his Dictionary! Or get Lady Lochbuie to offer him a cold sheepshead for breakfast!

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