Paul Johnson

The Great and the Good

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2001–2004

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Oxford University Press 1,268pp £95 order from our bookshop

This is the first printed supplement to the new DNB. It has 819 entries over 1,250 pages and costs £95. It joins the sixty volumes of the main dictionary, with its 54,922 biographies from the fourth century BC to AD 2000, costing £1,500. I love biographical dictionaries, and possess many, including the recently published Great Victorian Lives, selected from obituaries from The Times, which I strongly recommend (Times Books, £20). This new volume of the DNB is particularly welcome to me as I knew many of those included, and the contributors. As these weighty projects are slow-moving, many of the latter are already dead themselves. The old DNB was the work of men of letters, led by its first great editor Leslie Stephen. The new one is firmly in the grip of academics, being funded by OUP and with a ‘supervisory committee’ of the British Academy, the Royal Society and Oxford University. The result is high quality, in some ways, but with a certain plodding dullness and a notable lack of jokes. Of course, as Leslie Stephen himself admitted (in his entry on Milton, I think), ‘No good story is ever quite true’, but humour is a vital element in human life, and often a reason why men, and especially women, achieve valuable lives. 

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