Reflection on failure & Samuel Johnson

by Jamie Montgomery

Jamie Montgomery, an English major at the University of Central Florida, wrote this reflection for an internship during the Fall 2021 semester.

All I knew about Samuel Johnson before beginning this project was his brief viral-dom as the founding-father-looking-guy squinting in blank puzzlement at his newspaper. Didn’t even know his name. Probably saw a meme a few years ago with his infamous likeness captured in terrible resolution, captioned with “WHEN YOU FORGET HOW TO READ” or something similar, went “ha” in my head, and continued on my merry, scrolling way.

Actually identifying with some crusty old, British white man from centuries ago on a personal level? Hell no.

When I first read his biography page in August, I’d already been through the wringer. During the spring, I worked remotely and went to school fully online, a privilege I was grateful for and suffering under each full day I spent staring at my computer. I hadn’t been diagnosed with ADHD yet so I still saw my depression, anxiety, and paralysis around schoolwork as moral failings. I barely scraped by on academic probation. My aunt, mi maravillosa Tía Daisy on my mom’s side, died from breast cancer at the age of 42 in February. She was the youngest out of all her siblings. She left behind her grieving husband and two kids in tiny Port Chester, New York, far removed from us in every kind of distance. Her funeral carved something new in me that felt like grief but was probably nearer to numb savagery. A freezing ocean of helpless anger.

So, yeah. 2021 wasn’t really looking up for me just yet.

Did reading Samuel Johnson’s life story give me the solutions to all my problems? Nope. Turns out that was Adderall (well, solved like 50% of them, but that’s still pretty good) and therapy (25% only because capitalism is the one thing Stephan can’t solve). The feeling of finally untying your hand from behind your back without even knowing it was pinned there your whole life is impossible to describe. The future is now a tangible thing I can grasp instead of a fairy tale.

He might not have had a direct effect on my life, but to say Johnson and the time I spent proofreading his Dictionary didn’t teach me something valuable would be inaccurate. He struggled greatly with depression and most likely had Tourette’s. He constantly worried about money. He failed at everything he set out to accomplish. Everything! Even Johnson’s Dictionary, as valuable as it is, was published six years later than he said it’d be and is absolutely littered with mistakes (I should know).

He became my personal hero the minute I read these two sentences: “Johnson promised a dictionary in three years. He missed that self-imposed deadline, as he missed nearly all publishing deadlines in his life.”

As a college student who has been trying to complete their B.A. for the past five years,
now that is relatable.

My point is, I had a lot more in common with this crusty old, British white man (from centuries ago) than I originally supposed. We were “voracious readers” in our childhoods, terrible at school, prone to procrastination, consistently “plagued by melancholy and financial distress,” and never developed effective time management skills. Knowing that Johnson, who contributed greatly to history in the form of his Dictionary, was so incredibly imperfect as a member of his society helped me tackle this semester differently than before. Dedicating the rest of your life to the humanities creates a permanent urgency, I think. An urgency for that commitment to be fruitful, to have it mean something. Confirmation that it was the right decision.

I didn’t feel as petrified by it this time.


Words are my bread and butter. Now, if words could eventually provide my bread and butter, that would indeed be swell.

I knew I wanted to be a writer since fourth grade, but if you could get paid enough for reading books for the love of it, I might have picked that instead. School librarians remembered my name. The one and only time my mom tried to restrict my literary intake to just one book in middle school, I left our public library with the Chronicles of Narnia — the SEVEN books in ONE volume edition. And finished it before the end of the week to make a point. I was voracious.

Luckily, I’ve managed to sate my appetite to manageable proportions through other means. I fell in love with the writing center at the community college I graduated from and have worked there for almost three and a half years as a tutor. And, this semester, I had the opportunity to participate in the Johnson’s Dictionary Online project as a proofreader. Words raised and nurtured me at least as much as my parents had. It almost felt like paying homage.

I was assigned the majority of words that began with “G,” from “galley” to “hackney.” The last word I verified was “gracefulness.” 768 words might not sound like a lot, but let
me put it to you this way: the verb “to Go” has 68 definitions (technically 67 because
Johnson felt the need to include a fun little annotation at the end there) and 180 quotations which widely vary from paragraph length to half a line, which total up to approximately 4500 words read. For one entry. Out of 768.

Of course, the majority of the entries I proofread were not nearly as extensive, though
the number of quotations per page stayed the same (around 60). Part of Johnson’s vision for his Dictionary was his goal to include quotations for every entry, drawing from the venerated texts of his time. Shakespeare, Dryden, and the Holy Bible appeared most frequently for me, though he also sourced from the likes of Locke, Swift, Milton, Pope, and others.

Some weeks, yes, your eyes do tend to glaze over after double- and sometimes triple-verifying the many instances Shakespeare used the word “gnaw” in his plays. I was quickly surprised, however, by the ones which captured my attention enough I started keeping an extra tab open on my laptop for notes.


“Our bodies are our gardens, the which our wills are gardeners; so that, if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, the power lies in our will.”

Shakespeare’s Othello

“Gardener” struck a specific chord in me on week 3, as my abuela was finally beginning
to heal from a stroke she suffered earlier in September (and I’m very pleased to say she’s made a full recovery since). I’m not sure I made the connection then, but my Abuelita tenderly cultivated all her children and grandchildren without a doubt. I can clearly picture her stooped over a small, delicate daisy with a beaming smile, which never fails to make me a little teary-eyed.

On Wednesday of that week, my mom texted me a picture of her mother placing the last slice of pepperoni on a pizza she had made all on her own. Just a week before, we had no idea if she’d even survive the surgery to stop her brain from bleeding. My Abuelita’s garden must have been overflowing with lettuce, I thought.

“Neither my place, nor aught I heard of business,
Hath raised me from my bed; nor doth the general
Take hold on me; for my particular grief
Ingluts and swallows other sorrows.”

Shakespeare’s Othello

On Friday of week 5, I was told someone I loved dearly was in the hospital but wasn’t able to confirm if she was going to be okay for 55 minutes. For 55 minutes, my mind convinced me of the worst. I cried for hours that night, never happier to be proven wrong but thoroughly shaken to my core. I went through the general motions that weekend; I don’t think I left my bed the whole time.

“Gloomily retir’d
The villain spider lives.”

Thomson’s Summer

I saved that one on week 9 while choking back laughter in an Airbnb on the opposite side of the country. That trip was one of the most grueling, freeing, and wondrous experiences of my life. It feels strange to think fondly on such a gloomy word, but the concept of an 18th-century gentleman with a fear of spiders trying to make himself the hero in that situation was so funny to me. Every time I see that word now, it reminds me of L.A. and the Ghibli exhibit at the Academy Museum (i.e. the soot sprites from Spirited Away).


There’s this quote from Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, one of my favorite books from

“If you take a book with you on a journey,” Mo had said when he put the first one in her box, “an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it… yes, books are like flypaper—memories cling to the printed page better than anything else..”

Cornelia Funke

I never considered that could apply to dictionaries, too.