“Hardly a Single Life has Passed From Which We Could Not Learn Something”

Thanks to the white rabbit, I’ve begun W. Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson. This humane, generous bit is from Bate’s introduction:

“Johnson loved biography before every other kind of writing. It gives us, he said, ‘what comes near to us, what we can turn to use.’ He believed that hardly a single life had passed from which we could not learn something, if only it were told with complete honesty. He was thinking how isolated and compartmentalized all of us really are, and how much we all need — all the more as we reach middle age, and increasingly begin to face the fact of our disappearance — to touch hands with others, to learn from each other’s experience and to get whatever encouragement we can.”

This sums up something essential, this phrase of Bate’s:  “hardly a single life has passed from which we could not learn something, if only it were told with complete honesty.”  I suppose the place this enterprise begins is with our own telling of our lives, and how clearly we are able to describe ourselves to each other.


9 thoughts on ““Hardly a Single Life has Passed From Which We Could Not Learn Something”

  1. Well. If all our lives were recorded and lessons drawn out, plus centralized in a single location, then I suppose humanity as a whole would learn loads. But until that marvel of technology is constructed we’ve all got to slowly learn along the way what matters, and what does not.

    Writing your biography anytime soon, BL? We might learn a few things from it… ;P

  2. You’ve pulled a wonderful quote by Johnson, BL. My sister has attempted to steer me toward biographies for a similar reason–to see how others have dealt with challenges. I should take her–and you–up on that advice soon.

  3. Non-fiction is my favorite of all things to read. I am reading The Liars Club currently. I just finished all of Augusten Burroughs books and I love David Sedaris although is non-fiction is quiet liberally fictionish in most parts. My favortie bio I ever read was about Dorothy Parker. And I loved the Bell Jar although that wasn’t totally an autobiography.

    Your book sounds cool…I have 2 more on my list plus mountains of nursing school work to do, but I have added it. Maybe summer list? Thanks.

    PS. have you had any pluffery blueberries yet this year?

  4. I wonder if it’s not the quiet ones from whom we would learn the most startling and useful things. Some skilled, questioners/listeners like you are good at getting peope to open up. Unfortunately, the really quiet ones aren’t bloggers… unless they are spying on our comments, just waiting for the right question they are dying to answer. sort of like hovering aliens scanning all the signals in the universe, looking for the first signs of intelligent, compassionate conversation. Sorry, I’ve been watching too much TV news.

  5. Hi bloglily,

    That Johnson quote resonates with me too…

    Words are too frail to impart what we wish them to convey, but then they’re just about all we have. The struggle to tell it like it is…


  6. Hello dear Fencer, There was something too about Bate’s acknowledgement of what it’s like to be entering the middle of our lives, and knowing we’re going to be fading out of existence and wanting to connect, while we can. That’s the single biggest impulse behind writing a blog, I think.

    Hello Smokey, I love thinking of readers-but-not-commenters as “hovering aliens scanning all the signals in the universe, looking for the first signs of intelligent, compassionate conversation.”

    Hey Cole. Pluffery blueberries. MMM. You list sounds great. I also like reading about other people. I’m very nosey, I think, and love looking over the shoulders of other people to see what they’re doing. And yes indeed that is why I like to read blogs.

    Dorothy — I enjoyed following along as you read Bosworth and that’s one of the reasons (besides the W.Rabbit) I ordered this bio.

    Dear SS, Johnson, like Shakespeare, is one of those great quotable writers. That thing on your blog the other day, the one about how nobody ever wished Paradise Lost was longer, has made me his new best friend.

    Well Eli, This blog IS my biography. It’s questionable, however, that you’d learn much from it of use. Well, no, I take that back. If you look, you’ll find recipes for brownies, and steak tips, roasted potatoes, lemon ice, raspberry jam and a very nice vinaigrette.

  7. I don’t doubt for a minute that Samuel Johnson could learn something from pretty much anything he turned his attention to, but I’m not so sure the rest of us don’t spend our lives resolutely ignoring the lessons we should be learning from the undeniably instructive lives of others.

    It’s one thing for the story to be told honestly; quite another to find someone brave enough to heed the lessons and change.

    But, more importantly, I’m going to go searching for lemon ice.

  8. I loved this quotation. I haven’t (quite) reached (as far as I know) reached middle life yet, but the fact of my coming disappearance is something I think about, maybe too much. This, and the related desire, or even need, to connect with other people while I still can, is definitely a major factor in me writing my blog, and in doing other things that I do. I’m not sure that I was really aware of this at the time I started the blog, though, and it probably doesn’t show, given some of the waffle that I write!

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