I picked up a copy of his Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics) last spring. I’ve read bits and pieces of it but never had much time to invest in it. I’ve taught passages from Johnson before and students, even if they didn’t like him, at least followed along.
(For a good intro, see the essay on Johnson in this book Reading the Classics with CS Lewis)
While I recommend getting his Major Works, I am not sure reading it straight through is the best bet. Here is how I approach him, with perhaps some questions.
Johnson’s early foray into the scene. Magnificent patriotic poem.
Selections from the Rambler
CS Lewis read “The Rambler” before bed most nights. Here is where Johnson can challenge us. In no. 114 he criticizes capital punishment. For those of us with a biblical view of justice, and given that Johnson was such a manly patriot, how do we square this? (Hint: it has to do with the English justice system; cf. “London,” lines 247-254).
The Idler and The Rambler should constitute the bulk of the early reading of Johnson. The essays demonstrate admirable prose. They are to the point.
The English Dictionary
This can present something of a challenge to the reviewer. Even the abridged versions are long, and most don’t read dictionaries straight through. However, it makes good reading when you don’t have long to read. And his not-so-subtle jabs at the French are funny. And he also goes on thot patrol a few times.