Boswell or Gibbon?

My editions of Boswell's Life of Johnson and Gibbon's Decline and Fall
My editions of Boswell and Gibbon.

Recently, in my reading, both James Boswell and Edward Gibbon keep popping up. Boswell’s Life of Johnson is frequently referred to as the ultimate in biography and Boswell the ultimate biographer. Meanwhile, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall comes up again and again as one of the best histories ever written. Moreover, many people I admire have read and enjoyed the latter, not the least of which are John Adams and Isaac Asimov. I have wanted to read Decline and Fall for some time now. A while back, I acquired a 6-volume set of Everyman’s Library editions. And while visited a used bookstore recently, I obtained a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Both books would be huge undertakings, and I’ve already got a fairly long list of books taxiing to the runway ahead of these. So the two questions that remain are: when can I read them, and which should I read first, Boswell or Gibbon?

Considering this, I remembered that my friend Bart told me about a book called The Club by Leo Damrosch, which is about a gathering of great minds, among whose members were both Boswell and Gibbon. I decided that I would read that book before either of the other two, and make my decision based on whatever direction that book pointed me in. That is a much shorter book, and I figure my book-traffic-controller can slot it in after Fairy Tale by Stephen King (which I hope to start today), and Hell and Back by Craig Johnson, which I plan on reading right after King.

cover image of The Club by Leo Damrosch

This still leaves the problem of when to read Boswell and Gibbon. Given the speed at which I typically read, I expect I’d need to set aside 7-10 days for Boswell, and possibly twice as long for Gibbon. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of books coming out this month that I want to read. I think December would be the earliest at this point. It might be a good time since I will be on vacation for several weeks in December and might be able to read more than I usually do.

In the meantime, does anyone have thoughts or opinions on which to read first, Boswell or Gibbon? Let me know in the comments.

Written on September 7, 2022.

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  1. i just happened on your blog — I would go with Boswell. His biography is full of memorable conversations and anecdotes, and he really makes us understand Johnson’s greatness as a human being, not just as a writer. Gibbon is a master, but the Decline and Fall moves more slowly and deliberately, and it’s a marathon reading experience.

    With best wishes, Leo Damrosch

    1. Leo, thanks for the recommendation. Yesterday, as it turns out, I altered what I planned to read next and started reading The Club in order to be able to discuss it with my friend who recommended it when I see him on Sunday. Really enjoying it so far, and the book also makes a good case for reading Boswell first.


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