• The Life of Samuel Johnson

  • By: James Boswell
  • Narrated by: Bernard Mayes
  • Length: 43 hrs and 4 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Release date: 03-07-12
  • Language: English
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • 2.5 out of 5 stars 2.6 (11 ratings)


James Boswell forever changed the genre of biography when he painstakingly transformed a scholarly profusion of detail into a perceptive, lifelike portrait of Dr. Samuel Johnson.
James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson reveals a man of outsized appetites and private vulnerabilities and is the source of much of what we know about one of the towering figures of English literature. Boswell spent a great deal of time with Johnson in his final years and from his scrupulously accurate memory and copious journal was able to faithfully record the brilliance and wit of Dr. Johnson’s conversation. Boswell’s aim and achievement was completeness; no detail was too small for him. On this point Dr. Johnson remarked to him, “There is nothing, sir, too little for so little a creature as man.” Boswell’s thirst for detail makes this indisputably the finest of many biographies of Johnson.
This biography gained its unique place in literary history from the fact that its style was revolutionary. The usual style of biographers of that era was to record dry facts from the subject’s public life only. Boswell differed by incorporating actual conversations of Dr. Johnson, which Boswell had previously noted down in journals, and by including many more details of personal life. The result revolutionized the genre.
For both its subject and its style, The Life of Samuel Johnson is still popular with modern critics and students of the history of English thought and of English literature.
Public Domain (P)1998 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
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Critic reviews

“The most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.” (Walter Jackson Bate, American literary critic and biographer)
“The effect of [this] biography is also similar to that of War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Just as those novels provide a social history of Russia, so the Life serves as a portrait of late 18th-century England. On the title page Boswell claimed that his book exhibits ‘a View of Literature and Literary Men in Great Britain, for Near Half a Century,’ and the book has shaped posterity’s view of Johnson’s literary world quite as much as it has created an image of Johnson himself.” ( Masterpieces of World Literature)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Nico on 23-01-14

This is it. Life in the 1700s

A book I read many years ago in my youth, one that I have wanted to re-read ever since but have found it hard to find the time. It was a joy to immerse myself once again in the life of this most distinguished man. It is not only the man himself that is brought to the fore, but also the culture of the period and the general thoughts of men at the time, as told by his friend James Boswell through anecdotes, first hand accounts and the writings of Mr Johnson.

The delivery of the book by Bernard Mayes is wonderful. His slow and deliberate style lends itself fantastically well to the content, other than perhaps for the recital of many of the poems - the essence of which would often stagnate before the recital ended. This is a small point though and I thoroughly recommend pushing on through.

A little harder to overcome it the quality of sound, Bernard Mayes has a bass voice and the recording is annoyingly muddy. If this does not unduly perturb you then you will find you are on to a winner.

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5 of 5 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars
By Peter Thomas McNeely on 02-01-15

Great book, bad recording.

This very long, fairly dry book has been just the book I was looking for. A real window into the 18th century, and to a period of Toryism very different than today. Boswell writes well, and includes all the little anecdotes I was told to expect. It is like eavesdropping on your favourite author.

Bernard Mayes is too slow, too monotonous. Each sentence gets one of the two or three intonations he has in his very small palate, making it harder to follow. The recording is "muddy" to say the least. And with about 27 hours remaining, either Bernard Mayes stepped out, or they switched tapes and started speeding up the recording, because it sounds drastically different.

That said, these are problems common to all of Bernard Mayes' recordings (I have listened to 5 or 6). Unfortunately, his is often the only recording available, or not quite as bad as the alternatives. Time for some new recordings to be commissioned!

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
1 out of 5 stars
By Frank on 27-01-14

At least one huge gap

This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?

At least in my download, at 4:48:45 of Part 2 the narration skips 280 pages of text. I mentioned this to Audible but got no response.

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29 of 29 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Ted on 18-06-13

In print, a chore; read aloud, a delight

Would you consider the audio edition of The Life of Samuel Johnson to be better than the print version?

I've tried to read this legendary biography several times over the years, and while I've always suspected that it would provide me with no end of pleasure if I were stranded on the proverbial desert island, in actual daily life it has always proved slow and hard to stick with; in fact, I never even made it up to the point where Boswell first meets his hero.

This audiobook has proven the ideal way of appreciating the book. Most of all, I'm extremely taken with the mellow, cultivated, sober-but-good-humored, aged-in-oak voice and accent of Bernard Mayes. I realize that the quality of a narrator's voice is a matter of personal taste, but I, at least, find him pleasant to listen to even when -- as this particular biography forces him to do -- he's reading through a page or two of Latin. (Yep, that's something you'll have to be ready for if you venture into this book.) I've actually purchased several other titles Mayes has narrated just because he makes the listening so restful and agreeable.

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22 of 22 people found this review helpful

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