The Blagger's Guide To...Samuel Johnson

Ten pages of quotes, but none about oranges
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The Independent Culture

*The BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction will be presented this Wednesday in a ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London which will be broadcast on BBC Two's The Culture Show on Thursday.

The shortlist comprises: Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikötter (Bloomsbury); Caravaggio by Andrew Graham Dixon (Allen Lane); Liberty's Exiles by Maya Jasanoff (HarperPress); The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (Fourth Estate); Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford University Press); and Reprobates by John Stubbs (Viking). Controversial omissions from the longlist include Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem and Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson. Perhaps Ferguson (and his spellings) will be better appreciated in America. The week before the longlist was announced, he said that he would soon be returning to the States, asking: "Who wants to stick around to be sneered at when you can actually be appreciated?"

*The motto of the prize is "All the best stories are true", which applies equally to the life of its inspiration, Samuel Johnson. Johnson was born on 18 September 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and was educated at Oxford until he had to leave because he couldn't afford the fees. He married a woman 21 years his senior (for money), spent nine years writing his Dictionary of the English Language (published in 1755), was buried at Westminster Abbey in 1784 and left all of his money to his servant, Francis Barber, a Jamaican freedman.

*The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has 10 pages devoted to the sayings of Samuel Johnson, poet, critic, and lexicographer. Groucho Marx has less than half a page, Dorothy Parker about a page, and Winston Churchill a page and a half. Shakespeare has 31 pages.

*One of many books published in 2009 to mark the 300th anniversary of Johnson's birth was David Nokes's critically acclaimed Samuel Johnson: A Life. In it, Nokes summarises Johnson as "a man alone, a half-blind widower balanced neatly by his own disproportionate bulk, making clarity in the dictionary out of chaos". (Sadly, Nokes's book was not longlisted for that year's Samuel Johnson Prize, which was won by Philip Hoare for Leviathan, Or the Whale.

*James Boswell's 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson was exacting in its appreciations of Dr Johnson and all his habits. One reported conversation between the two men concerned Johnson's collection of orange peelings. Boswell asked him to explain. "I have a great love for them," Johnson replied. "And pray, Sir, what do you do with them? You scrape them, it seems, very neatly, and what next?" "I let them dry, Sir." "And what next?" "Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further."

*Johnson opposed slavery and loved his cats, Hodge and Lily.

*A report in the British Medical Journal in 1979 was among the first to speculate that Johnson might have had Tourette's Syndrome. It wrote: "Dr Samuel Johnson was noted by his friends to have almost constant tics and gesticulations .... He also made noises and whistling sounds; he made repeated sounds and words and irregular or blowing respiratory noises ..."

*Johnson considered his life to have been "a barren waste of time" with "disturbances of the mind very close to madness".