A good idea from ... Boswell & Johnson

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MOST biographies are about very famous people - Hitler, Buddy Holly, Napoleon etc - the kind who might lazily be described as larger than life, expressing the outer limits of human possibility, capable of feats one might gasp at and be thrilled by on the morning commuter train.

But paradoxically, it seems we read biographies not to learn of the differences between ourselves and the great, but rather the similarities. It is thrilling to read of all the ways in which otherwise extraordinary people share habits and emotions with which we can identify, to learn, for example, that Napoleon had a fondness for grilled chicken, that he wept and had messy affairs, bit his nails and was jealous of his friends - details which melt the stony heroism of the official statue.

No biographer understood this better than James Boswell, who in his Life of Johnson offered a portrait of the famous English lexicographer. Boswell did not dwell on Johnson's great achievements, but rather on his everyday behaviour; his sleeping habits, the cut of his clothes, his laughter, his fingernails and his favourite foods. "I generally have a meat pye on Sunday," Boswell reported Johnson as saying. With this came an extended description of a meal at Johnson's house: "As dinner here was considered a singular phenomenon, and as I was frequently interrogated on the subject, my readers may perhaps be desirous to know our bill of fare. We had a very good soup, a boiled leg of lamb and spinach, a veal pye, and a rice pudding."

Boswell knew he was in danger of being attacked as superficial, but was ready with a robust defence: "I am fully aware of the objections which may be made to the minuteness on some occasions of my detail of Johnson's conversation, and how happily it is adapted for the petty exercise of ridicule, by men of superficial understanding and ludicrous fancy; but I remain firm and confident in my opinion, that minute particulars are frequently characteristic, and always amusing, when they relate to a distinguished man."

Fortunately, Dr Johnson agreed. In one of his many conversations with Boswell, he said that there would be value in minute descriptions of any life, even the life of a broomstick. "There has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful. For, not only has every man great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such a uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill, but is common to human kind."

What most biographies disguise, in their concern for unusual lives, is the extraordinariness of any life. Boswell's biography of Johnson reveals just how fascinating it can be to hear that someone in the 18th century loved veal pye and rice pudding.