Samuel Johnson's wit and genius: not just for students; Samuel Johnson: The Oxford Author Series, edited by Donald Greene. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 840 pp. $9.95 (paperback).
There have been complaints about the new Oxford Author series, the first four volumes of which (John Clare, William Wordsworth, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson) have just been made available in the United States.
Some people think the metallic blue covers signal Serious Marketing, which makes them nervous. The covers, in fact, display the name of the author in bold white letters at the top right corner. The name is underscored with a swatch of beaded color - yellow, turquoise, navy, light blue, red, pink. The effect is of a new paint job having been scratched so that previous layers are exposed. At the bottom of the page, in letters twice the size of the author's name, is the elegantly tilted logo: The Oxford Authors.
Furthermore, the detractors note, Oxford paperbacks have a poor reputation for durability. They've been known to come unglued before an Evelyn Wood graduate can finish one reading. My copy of Ronald Syme's ''The Roman Revolution'' cracked on first opening. Naturally one would worry about the binding on a paperback the size of ''Samuel Johnson,'' with its 840 pages. But I've handled it roughly, and so far it's held.
Putting aside questions of design and construction, however, one might ask what separates the Oxford Authors volumes from the kind of books college students pore over the night before finals - and then sell back to the bookstore the day after.
Oxford claims in a blurb that the series is for ''the student and the general reader.'' Certainly it will be used by students. But do students grow up to be general readers?
I would like to think so. Clearly ''Samuel Johnson'' proves to be the kind of book that could help them do so.
Though Boswell's famous life of Johnson is not excerpted here (it is available uncut in an Oxford paperback edition), a wealth of material is included. For example:
* Over a hundred pages of Johnson's late prose.
* A generous selection of his poems. (I had not realized that Johnson's translation of an ode (IV,7) from Horace - a spring song that veers into an unforgettable collage of images of mutability and separation - was done the year of Johnson's death.)
* More than a hundred selections of Johnson's early prose.
* More than a hundred pages of the periodical essays.
* The preface to ''A Dictionary of the English Language'' (in which Johnson dismisses his great work with a ''frigid tranquillity'' and prose of awesome power).
* The complete ''Rasselas,'' Johnson's exploration of the vanity of the human search for happiness. Written to defray the cost of his mother's funeral, ''Rasselas'' became Johnson's best seller.
* Johnson's preface to ''The Plays of William Shakespeare'' and specimens of the former's annotation, presented, like those of the ''Dictionary'' pages, in facsimile.
These latter works are as quickening to inquiry as anything Johnson wrote.
Yet there's more!
In his 66th year, Johnson and Boswell took a walking tour of Scotland; the same year Johnson got an honorary doctorate from Oxford, where he had spent little over a year as a youth, before penury cut short his one chance to develop in a disciplined way the powers he cultivated in a guilty and desultory way throughout his life. This volume includes a nice selection from the ''Journey.''
Not to mention a selection from ''The Lives of the English Poets,'' written when Johnson was in his late 60s and early 70s for the initially agreed upon figure of (STR)300, plus an extra hundred when it was agreed that he had gone beyond the call of duty. These biographical sketches have served as touchstones of criticism and appreciation; they are invaluable!
In this ''Samuel Johnson,'' then, one has perhaps more than one bargained for.
Perusal of these pages, however casual and infrequent, would never be a waste of time. In the section of late prose, for example, I came upon an item called ''Of the Duty of a Journalist'' (1758). Here Johnson lays the cornerstones of responsible journalism: to tell the truth as we see it day by day, and to injure no man. He observes that ''to relate crimes is to teach them . . . nothing contributes more to the frequency of wickedness than the representation of it as already frequent.''
The bicentenary of Johnson's death is coming up Dec. 13. To read Johnson is to be reminded that genius and humanity once dwelled together - in one rather large frame, robust enough to ensure that humanity prevailed. Johnson is relevant again, now that what we once were content to call the Age of Aquarius has, to our horror, turned into the Age of Sectarianism.
''The shame,'' he wrote, ''is to impose words for ideas upon ourselves or others.'' By that definition, we live in a shameful time. Johnson's ability to free himself from delusion is something we can learn by reading him with care and love.
I welcome the Oxford Authors series. Aimed at students and general readers alike, it should do much to turn students into general readers - and vice versa.