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A Life With Books

posted on 19 Oct 2017

A Life With Books by Julian Barnes

I found this modest 27 page essay a haunting read – primarily because it contained so many echoes of my own relationship with books. Although Julian Barnes’ world has always been very different to mine in so many respects – he is from a comfortable middle class background with all the cultural privileges that was denied to my own working class heritage – we do share some very particular attitudes towards books, book collecting and book ownership.

I read the pamphlet straight-through twice and then once more just to savour some of his anecdotes and I can imagine I’ll be reading it again before too long. This is part of a series of small essay pamphlets produced around 2012 to try and bolster the claims of real paper books over the seeming inevitable incursion of electronic readers into the market. I think Barnes should be congratulated for his remarkably prescient analysis of what was needed to turn the tide:

Books will have to earn their keep – and so will bookshops. Books will have to become more desirable: not luxury goods, but well-designed, attractive, making us want to pick them up, buy them, give them as presents, keep them, think about rereading them, and remember in later years that this was the edition in which we first encountered what lay inside.

Spot on. And, to be fair to the publishing business, this is exactly how they have responded. Elsewhere on this site you’ll find plenty of other pieces that praise the way in which book designers and illustrators have upped their game and are producing books that can only be described as works of art. I’m less sure that bookshops have been quite as nimble but they can, to some extent, be excused given the dreadful handicaps they labour under – High Street rents seem almost deliberately set at levels to discourage occupations like bookselling.

Having lauded Barnes for his astute political analysis, I really want to praise him for his very open and honest account of how he fell into being a book collector and fringe bibliomaniac. This is a state of mind I can have full sympathy with and there are some brilliant moments when I entirely recognise the emotions he’s going through:

Over the next decade or so – from the late Sixties to the late Seventies – I became a furious book-hunter, driving to the market towns and cathedral cities of England in my Morris Traveller and loading it with books bought at a rate which far exceeded any possible reading speed.

Oh, yes. I know this well. I still do. He goes on to nail the mind-set perfectly when he says:

I bought with a hunger which I recognise, looking back, was a kind of neediness.

Well, I still have the hunger and it shows little sign of abating. He confesses to his buying mistakes as well as the ones that went spectacularly well and he also gives a compellingly good explanation of why signed first editions can stir the blood of some people to the point of recklessness.

But Barnes seems to have found his way out of this maze – now he writes his own books the compulsion to purchase others has settled – not that he’s stopped but he’s found his level. I’m not so sure that I have though….

You can get a copy of this essay for literally a few pence on the second hand market and I can’t believe anyone visiting a website like this wouldn’t just love it.

 

Terry Potter

October 2017