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.