Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him.

The following throwaway remark appears in one of Borges’ lectures on English literature (collected and edited as Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature):

There was a legend, or story, that Johnson had an argument with a bookseller and felled him with a blow, not with a cane but with a book, a folio volume, which makes the anecdote more literary and also testifies to Johnson’s great physical strength, for such manuscripts are difficult to handle, especially in the middle of a fight.

Boswell’s account is a mere sketch since the event took place before he and Johnson came together, but it – if Boswell can be trusted in such matters – confirms the essential reality of what Borges takes more as symbol-laden exaggeration.

1742: AETAT. 33.]—In 1742 he wrote . . . ‘Proposals for Printing Bibliotheca Harleiana, or a Catalogue of the Library of the Earl of Oxford.’ He was employed in this business by Mr. Thomas Osborne the bookseller, who purchased the library for 13,000l., a sum which Mr. Oldys says, in one of his manuscripts, was not more than the binding of the books had cost; yet, as Dr. Johnson assured me, the slowness of the sale was such, that there was not much gained by it. It has been confidently related, with many embellishments, that Johnson one day knocked Osborne down in his shop, with a folio, and put his foot upon his neck. The simple truth I had from Johnson himself. ‘Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him. But it was not in his shop: it was in my own chamber.’

Sadly, it must remain unclear whether Johnson deserves praise for his dexterous handling of a full folio.

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