When my mother saw Johnson’s Life of London on my Christmas list, she immediately assumed it was by Samuel Johnson. For her it is perfectly normal to have a daughter asking for writings by18th century intellectuals. This time, however, that was not the case.
Johnson refers to Boris Johnson, the tow-headed, bike-riding mayor of London who shot to international fame, or at least recognition, during the 2012 London Olympics. I was charmed by his appearances on the Today show last summer and was intrigued when I heard he had written a book about life in London. He does not disappoint.
Johnson traces the history of London through the lives of its luminaries, starting with the ancient Celts and Romans and ending with Keith Richards and The Great Mayfair hotel. Some figures present are ones you would expect: Shakespeare, Florence Nightengale, Winston Churchill, and the afore-mentioned Johnson. Some might be less well known, such as Robert Hooke and J. M. W. Turner, but all significantly impacted the formation of London into the diverse, complex, and great city that it is. Interspersed throughout the chapters are side bars describing important inventions that appeared around the same time as the person being profiled, including the bicycle, the London Tube, and the modern toilet and sewage system. Though each person and invention stands alone, Johnson adroitly weaves the chapters together to create a revealing portrait of his beloved city.
Johnson, born in New York City and raised in London, has a wonderfully academic yet chummy style of writing. It is the kind of informative yet accessible style that I feel academics should be moving toward in their writing. Jargon-laden mumbo-jumbo does nothing to promote either academia or the topic in question. Johnson, on the other hand, gets it quite right. His intelligence and facility with language shine through, and personal anecdotes and “fun facts” (Dick Whittington didn’t really have a cat) meld comfortably with meticulous research and cogent arguments. At times slightly gossipy but never unprofessional, you have the feeling that Johnson is telling you these stories with a rather conspiratorial air. Yet Johnson is fiercely proud of his city and those who built it, and his love and pride permeate his writing.
I must admit, it took me longer to read this book than I was expecting, simply because its nature is partly academic, and for me, reading non-fiction is always a slower, though no less enjoyable, process than reading fiction. However, the book is parceled out in such a way that one could easily read it straight through or put it down and come back to it after a while. One can have as casual or as exclusive a relationship with the book as one wants. Johnson’s Life of London is a delightful, insightful, and educational read, shining a light on London itself through its well and less-well-known creators. I highly recommend checking it out!