Quotation for the week: Johnson

A slightly unexpected detail from the life of the great English man of letters Dr Samuel Johnson (he of the Dictionary), recounted as usual by his biographer James Boswell.

We had tea in the afternoon, and our landlord’s daughter, a modest civil girl, very neatly drest, made it for us… Dr Johnson made her a present of a book which he had bought at Inverness…

And what was this book? My readers, prepare your features for merriment. It was Cocker’s Arithmetick! Wherever this was mentioned, there was a loud laugh, at which Dr Johnson, when present used sometimes to be a little angry. One day, when we were dining at General Oglethorpe’s, where we had many a valuable day, I ventured to interrogate him, ‘But, sir, is it not somewhat singular that you should HAPPEN to have Cocker’s Arithmetick about you on your journey? What made you buy such a book at Inverness?’ He gave me a very sufficient answer. ‘Why, sir, if you are to have but one book with you upon a Journey, let it be a book of science. When you have read through a book of entertainment, you know it, and it can do no more for you; but a book of science is inexhaustible.’

James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (p. 42 in the edition linked to here).

The remarkable aspect of the story isn’t Johnson’s apparently unliterary taste in reading, which he explains convincingly enough. Cocker’s Arithmetick was not a profound volume of mathematical research but a dry-as-dust textbook, notorious for centuries as an instrument of torture for grammar-school pupils. We have to hope the landlord’s daughter had a fairly high  degree of mathematical stamina…

Some of the mathematical definitions from Johnson’s Dictionary are collected here. Dr Johnson’s views on mathematics seem, on the whole, to have been kinder than his views on (say) Scotland.


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