Why, some will ask, another biography of that print-drenched Englishman, especially so soon after John Wain's acclaimed contribution? Quite simply, because this one is by Harvard's W. Jackson Bate, Pulitzer Prize-winner (John Keats) and a scholar who believes, with Johnson, that biographies should be not just entertainments or theses but reassuring lessons in the hard job of living. While Wain's cool, sharp study connected Johnson's moral voice to 20th-century depravity, Bate gravely and warmly embraces Johnson's life-and-writings as an inspiring, personal touchstone for all times: "Whatever we experience, we find Johnson has been there before us, and is meeting and returning home with us." There is little that's new—there's been little new since Boswell, Thrale, and Hawkins—in the facts Bate presents: the awkward, half-blind, half-deaf, tic-ridden, pockmarked body; the decades of hack writing, poverty, and camaraderie; the prodigious feats of self-education, speed-writing, the Dictionary; the tender attachments to an elderly bride, the gifted (Garrick, Goldsmith, Reynolds), and the wayward. But, using a homely blend of psychoanalysis, scholarship, and sheer empathy, Bate draws from the life its universal quandaries: the fight against sloth, the impossible pressures of self-demand, the fear of insanity, the pursuit and distrust of religion, the quest for self-management. Johnson's breakdowns—in his twenties and at mid-life—resound with implicit, contemporary echoes. And, in the works, Bate finds Johnson's intuitive understanding—in himself and others—of the terrain later charted by Freud: the "stratagems of self-defence"; the nature of wishing, boredom, envy; the admission that the mind is not a serene, rational instrument. Even Bate's most professorial critiques (counting verbs, diagramming the Johnsonian sentence) are linked, gracefully, to the real—"the real issues are still not dead." At one point, Bate reminds us that Johnson's formal, idea-laden poem, "The Vanity of Human Wishes," was known to have drawn 18th-century tears from the sort of readers immune to sentimental assaults. This compassionate, dead-center biography, quietly gathering hope for us all as it follows its handicapped "heroic pilgrim. . . through this strange adventure of life," should have a similar impact on readers in our own time and in times to come.

Pub Date: Oct. 25, 1977

ISBN: 1582435243

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1977


If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998


The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006