My review of *The Rambler*, by Samuel Johnson

by on April 27, 2015 at 1:25 pm in Books, Economics, History, Philosophy | Permalink

Eric Posner’s (with Adrian and Blakey Vermeule) new and excellent venture The New Rambler asked me to write a book review for them.  The impish side of me thought “what book better to review than the old Rambler?”, namely by Samuel Johnson?  Here is the opening of my piece:

A blogger by the ostensible name of “Samuel Johnson” has compiled his previous posts into a book, edited by a supposed W.J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss. But the true work here is “Johnson’s,” and the sequential editing, as such, seems to have been done by WordPress. The editorial illusion, of course, is a trick dating from the eighteenth century, as for instance Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope presented the work of an imaginary Martinus Scriblerus in the 1740s. These Johnson posts claim to date from the early 1750s, a typical blogger’s conceit and misdirection, but the content is too modern and innovative to sustain that illusion for long.

Cutting through the postmodern trappings, Johnson’s blog reflects his ongoing interest in behavioral economics. He is continually skirting the frontier of the latest research insights, although like many bloggers he is lax in providing the proper citations. He writes off the top of his head, though without care for what came before from Thomas Schelling, Jean Tirole, or Cass Sunstein, among other titans of the field. Reading these short pieces is thus a fascinating but often frustrating experience. And as is true for most of the work in behavioral economics, there are insights but a fully fleshed out model, applied consistently to all human choices, is nowhere to be found.

Here is the full review, recommended!

1 ibaien April 27, 2015 at 1:27 pm


2 Bros Before Coase April 27, 2015 at 1:40 pm

I have a degree in English and American Literature from a fancy university and I don’t get it. This is too clever by a very wide margin, is it not?

3 Ray Lopez April 27, 2015 at 11:23 pm

Poe’s Law at work? I got it however: it’s TC critiquing Boswell’s classic biography of Johnson (more details here: from an economics lens.

Bonus trivia: Socrates’ “know thyself” is not meant as TC interprets it, in the modern style, as “know what you are capable of”, but rather, more like “know your place in society”. Perhaps TC has in mind the words of Plato, Socrates biographer, who advocates having a critical mind, of “a life unexamined is not worth living” (Plato, Apology)?

4 dearieme April 28, 2015 at 6:23 am

Depend upon it, Sir, ’twas indeed “The Rambler” to which our author has made allusion.

5 Steve April 28, 2015 at 7:58 am

How is this a critique of Boswell? Curious…

6 dearieme April 28, 2015 at 6:22 am

Depend upon it, Sir, ’twas not fancy enough.

7 dearieme April 28, 2015 at 6:24 am

Maybe what America needs is not “fancy” universities but good ones?

8 Just Another MR Commentor April 27, 2015 at 2:12 pm

You didn’t close your “*” so how can I be sure where the book title ends? As far as I know the title of this book is as long as the combined length of your entire blog and has no author.

9 Ricardo April 27, 2015 at 2:42 pm

This is genius… and Bate’s biography of Johnson, by the way, is thoroughly enjoyable.

10 Jeff R. April 27, 2015 at 2:43 pm

“And as is true for most of the work in behavioral economics, there are insights but a fully fleshed out model, applied consistently to all human choices, is nowhere to be found.”

Should we really expect anything else?

11 Urstoff April 27, 2015 at 2:53 pm

For intellectually honest people that want to use behavioral economics to craft policy? Yes. For normal economists and politicians? No.

12 Jeff R. April 27, 2015 at 4:13 pm

Actually, I meant that human behavior being…you know…kinda complicated, as well as humans themselves being…you know…all rather different from one another, a “fully fleshed out model applied consistently to all human choices” seems like a bit of a longshot. Or would have to be watered down to the point that it would be virtually useless.

13 Anon. April 27, 2015 at 2:53 pm

Brilliant! Took me way too long to get it.

Now the question is: should one start with Johnson or Boswell?

14 Tyler Cowen April 27, 2015 at 5:42 pm


15 Faze April 27, 2015 at 6:00 pm

Best book about Johnson (aside from Boswell, of course) is “Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing” by Paul Fussell, author of “The Great War and Modern Memory”. It explores the economics of authorship in Johnson’s time, and analyzes the whole topic of literary genres in an original way.

16 Paul April 27, 2015 at 8:14 pm

It’s $178…

17 Nemo April 28, 2015 at 7:50 am

A good, relatively cheaper overview is: Selected Essays from the “Rambler”, “Adventurer” and “Idler”.

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