London — The greatest of biographies, all 1,200 pages of it, is reducible to some quick flurries of dialogue. When the star of The Life of Samuel Johnson speaks unimpeded, you can almost picture Boswell and the rest gazing thirstily at the alehouse taps. The experience for the reader is hardly less of a drag. It is when their jousting cross-talk starts that the myth of Georgian London — each tavern an intellectual smithy — becomes not just plausible, but alive.

Interruption, or at any rate the anticipation of it, is what keeps Johnson and his crew sharp. It is telling how many of his canonical lines (“You have desert enough in Scotland”) come in staccato exchanges...

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