But Does He Practice What He Writes?
Publishers and readers sometimes fret over whether authors practice what they teach or preach. In reading James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, his account of a 1773 trip with Samuel Johnson to the Hebrides of Scotland, I came across a passage in which Johnson addresses this topic.
One evening at supper, Johnson and Boswell and their host fell to discussing books and their authors and the potential lack of congruence between an author’s life and an author’s book:
Lady Macleod mentioned Dr. Cadogan’s book on the gout.
Johnson: “It is a good book in general, but a foolish one in particulars. It is good in general, as recommending temperance and exercise, and cheerfulness. In that respect it is only Dr. Cheyne’s book told in a new way; and there should come out such a book every thirty years, dressed in the mode of the times. It is foolish, in maintaining that the gout is not hereditary, and that one fit of it, when gone, is like a fever when gone.”
Lady Mcleod objected that the author does not practice what he teaches. [Boswell notes in a footnote that Dr. Cadogan had been rumored to indulge “freely in the bottle,” though Boswell had since discovered it was not the case.]
Johnson: “I cannot help that, madam. That does not make his book the worse. People are influenced more by what a man says, if his practice is suitable to it—because they are blockheads. The more intellectual people are, the readier will they attend to what a man tells them. If it is just, they will follow it, be his practice what it will. No man practices so well as he writes. I have, all my life long, been lying till noon; yet I tell all young men, and tell them with great sincerity, that nobody who does not rise early will ever do any good. Only consider! You read a book; you are convinced by it; you do not know the author. Suppose you afterwards know him, and find that he does not practice what he teaches; are you to give up your former conviction? At this rate you would be kept in a state of equilibrium, when reading every book, till you knew how the author practiced.”
“But,” said Lady M’Leod, “you would think better of Dr. Cadogan, if he acted according to his principles.”
Johnson: “Why, madam, to be sure, a man who acts in the face of light, is worse than a man who does not know so much; yet I think no man should be the worse thought of for publishing good principles. There is something noble in publishing truth, though it condemns one’s self.”
And I’m thinking, what might I have said had I been sitting at the table?
Reid: Sir, I will grant that there is no great writer who “practices so well as he writes.” Though I should think the world is full of those who practice much better than they write!
I don’t think I would have left Johnson speechless. And it’s fun to think of his retort.
Posted by Dan Reid
at February 15, 2010 12:41 PM