Julian Barnes on reading books, collecting books, and annotating books.

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This piece is a version of a speech delivered at Christie’s, London, to mark First Editions, Second Thoughts, an auction of annotated first edition books and works of art from internationally renowned contemporary artists and authors, in support of English PEN.


I was ten or eleven when television first appeared in our household, while the internet did not arrive until I was past my halfway mark. I start writing my books in longhand and then transfer to an old electric typewriter, an IBM 196c, for which spares are increasingly difficult to find. I have never owned a Kindle. Though I have written journalism – and these words – on a computer, I am essentially an analogue person. Books, books, books – they have been central to my life: new books, old books, second-hand books, collectable books. As I write this, across from me are shelves that contain the following reference works, all printed on paper and bound within boards: the twenty-volume OED; the 21-volume DNB, plus eleven supplementary volumes; and the twenty-volume 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in what they called the ‘handy volume’ version, each book small enough to be carried in a large outside pocket (it used to be said of the young and very brilliant Aldous Huxley that you could tell from his conversation which particular volume he had slipped into his pocket that morning). I could get all these books on my computer, of course, but I resist for two reasons: one, a gut feeling that research should involve some labour, if only that of lifting a heavy book from a shelf; and two, because you often make serendipitous discoveries when turning the pages of a reference book. Also in my eyeline is, of course, a collected edition of Flaubert; most of Pevsner’s Buildings of England series; my mother’s 1915 copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a Hobson-Jobson, plus numerous dictionaries and encyclopaedias, very often not the latest editions. I have always enjoyed old reference books, because they tell you what was true at that time. Modern reference books will tell you this, too, and then explain why it is now considered wrong. But I prefer to read such truths when they were considered true – just as I want to know what Mrs Beeton told you to cook, without wanting to prepare or eat it today.

I have been a book reader, a book buyer, a book sniffer, a book collector and, in recent times, a regretful book discarder. Logan Pearsall Smith, the American Anglophile essayist who died in the year I was born, published in 1902 a wryly titled volume called Trivia, to which the Spectator’s reviewer accorded this redolent tribute: ‘If Trivia lay on the hall table, one would not mind how long the others took to dress.’ He followed it with More Trivia and All Trivia. But I invoke his name to quote one of his more remembered witticisms: ‘Some people say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ This is funny and wry, but in my view entirely wrong. Reading isn’t something you do when you’re not living, or when life has let you down, or you are incapacitated in some way. Nor is reading just part of living. Reading is living, and only reading fully explains what this thing called life is.

As a book collector, I specialised in modern first editions, and would have slavered before the books assembled by English PEN for their recent auction: first editions, newly annotated and illustrated by their authors, they are by their very nature one-offs, unique, unrepeatable, and probably of interest to scholars in years to come. ‘First Editions, Second Thoughts’ the auction’s title says, with the presumption that second thoughts are improvements. Well, they often may be, but it’s possible to think of cases in which they are disimprovements as well as improvements. When the later Henry James rewrote some of his early novels for the New York Edition, many thought he had added mere ornate complication, rather than increased lucidity. When John Fowles revised The Magus ten years after it had been a big hit, he made several substantial changes, but also hundreds of surface stylistic alterations. For instance, ‘he leant on a door opposite’ becomes ‘he leant against a door-jamb opposite,’ while ‘Five days later I was standing on Hymettus’ becomes ‘Four days later I was standing on Hymettus’ – as if Fowles had been busy with back numbers of the Thomas Cook European Timetable. At one point, a young woman accepts the narrator’s invitation to come to his room with ‘I’ll come in five minutes’; ten years later, this becomes ‘I’ll come in one minute.’ I’ll leave you to speculate on the thinking behind that one. 

And it’s also the case that writers can, with age, be just as forgetful as everyone else. For instance, the first edition of Flaubert’s Parrot has a scarlet wraparound band announcing ‘shortlisted for the Booker Prize’. I decided to annotate this ephemeral item on the copy for the auction, and wrote upon it ‘the first of my books to have a special band round it – exciting!’ My annotations to the book were shown at one point to my old friend and webmaster Ryan Roberts, who knows my work better than I do. He pointed out that, four years previously, my first novel, Metroland, also had a scarlet wraparound band announcing that it had won the Somerset Maugham Award. So, whoever bid successfully for the later book will have found that I have been humiliatingly obliged to annotate my original annotation.

I used to think I was a real book collector until I had a conversation many years ago with a dealer called Eric Korn, who was also a witty contributor to the TLS and other magazines. I told him I collected Larkin and was still looking for a first edition of The Less Deceived. He replied, ‘Have you got The North Ship?’, referring to Larkin’s much earlier first collection. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I haven’t got it but I don’t want it.’ ‘Why not?’ he asked. ‘Because I don’t think it’s much good,’ I replied. He gave me a glacial frown and a shake of the head, and I knew what he didn’t need to say: if you collected an author, you collected an author, and that was that; you didn’t start preferring some of their books to others. I wasn’t a real collector because I wasn’t a completist. I was just an amateur – which, in a way, was a relief.

I greatly enjoyed my early decades of book-hunting. I would drive my open-top Morris Minor to the cathedral and market towns of England, in which there was always a large second-hand bookshop that you could always park right outside for hours and hours. And there were other regular places of pilgrimage: for instance The Lilies, a vast rambling Victorian house outside Aylesbury, run by a dealer called Peter Eaton. It contained more second-hand books than I had ever seen in any one place, a rich and varied sale-house where I always spent more money than I could afford. And it was here that I experienced a moment of lost innocence. I had always assumed that those who loved books were high-minded and honest, rather in the way that I’d always assumed that gardeners were high-minded and honest. Then I discovered that some of the latter would carry concealed secateurs and have poachers’ pockets sewn into the inside of their coats for the contraband they would pick as they made their way round rare and famous gardens. I was at the Lilies and spotted a book I had sought for a very long time: a first edition of Evelyn Waugh’s second novel, Vile Bodies. In matters of Evelyn Waugh, I was, and still remain, a completist – for instance, I own a copy of the first Belgian edition, with pages uncut and original wraparound band, of Waugh’s Scoop, published under the title Sensation! (Do I hear a sharp intake of envious breath? Perhaps not.) I took the copy of Vile Bodies from the shelf, opened it, observed the very reasonable price, and realised that it was in fact a second impression. Well, I didn’t want that. Then I read the pencilled name of the original owner:  John Hayward, the editor, bibliophile and close friend of T. S. Eliot. And beneath it was a note in his hand reading ‘left on my shelves in place of my own first edition.’ I was deeply, genuinely shocked. I imagined the thief laying his plans, coming fully prepared with his copy of the second edition in the equivalent of a poacher’s pocket, and quickly, surreptitiously, swapping them over.

Of course, something like that couldn’t possibly happen to me – my collection wasn’t important enough. And then, within the last twelve months, it has. One day, I noticed a gap in the shelves devoted to the books by my friends and acquaintances. No, surely, I must have mislaid it, taken the book out and left it around, or put it back in the wrong place. Long searches confirmed that someone must have nicked it. ‘It’ was a first edition of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker-winning The Remains of the Day, signed shortly after we had met, with the inscription ‘To Julian and Pat, Hello and Friendship, Ish’. I have tried not to think about this too much because it would easily make anyone paranoid. How could it have happened? And when? And which bastard… No, stop right there…

As I said, books are and always have been my life. Writing them, reading them, putting them down if you don’t like them. This last aspect seems to me important. There is a certain puritanical strain – English, perhaps – which insists that a) if a book is on your shelves, it is your responsibility to read it, and b) once you’ve started it, you should finish it, that you somehow owe a duty to both yourself and the book to do so. I have never subscribed to this notion. I remember reading Wuthering Heights at the age of fifteen or so, giving up with 40 pages to go and wishing I’d done so earlier. (Don’t be that shocked – I have subsequently finished the novel.) I often – or fairly often – abandon books in the first twenty to 30 pages and feel no guilt about it. I sometimes start reading a poem in a magazine and stop three or four lines in. And I wouldn’t take especial umbrage if you started one of my books, decided it wasn’t for you, and transferred your attention to someone else’s book. Actually, let me correct that: I wouldn’t take umbrage, I would simply feel that you had no stamina, curiosity or taste… Many years ago – 36, to be precise – my friend Mark Lawson – well, he is now my friend, but you will understand why it has been a long process – reviewed my fourth novel, Staring at the Sun, in a prominent Sunday newspaper. It was a very bad review. Somehow, I couldn’t manage to forget his phrase ‘After Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes’s Turkey.’ I couldn’t forget it partly because he was so pleased with it that he included it both at the start and at the end of his piece. Some years after that, he asked me to sign his copy of the book. Some cheek, you might think. So I – magnanimously – wrote on the title page, ‘To Mark Lawson, who when he comes to full maturity will appreciate the many and various merits of this novel.’ I haven’t checked with him recently about the state of his maturity, but he turned 60 this year, so I have some faint hopes.

And what of the Future of the Book, that question much posed in recent times. The physical book, that is. John Updike, in a late poem, ‘The Author Observes his Birthday, 2005’, wrote lovingly of his early years of being a writer and of seeing ‘my halt words strut in type’. He goes on:

[…] And then to have my spines
line up upon the shelf, one more each year,
however out of kilter ran my life!

I too remember that feeling, though in my case it was more like a book every two years. In the same poem, Updike writes with melancholy – indeed pessimism – of the future of the printed book:

A life poured into words – apparent waste
intended to preserve the thing consumed.
For who, in that unthinkable future
when I am dead, will read? The printed page
was just a half-millennium’s brief wonder.

I am much less pessimistic. Book-buying, as we saw, went up during lockdown. The appetite for the physical book appears undiminished, perhaps even increasing. The physical book is, as someone else might put it, the perfect piece of delivery equipment for what it contains – words, pleasure, truth. But I’m sure I don’t have to convince any of you of that.

So I am confident that there will be auctions such as this in the future.  And when there are, I hope that you bid with vicious single-mindedness. Always remember that it is much, much better for you to win and own the book than for somebody else to do so. And by the way, if anyone does come across that missing copy of The Remains of the Day, I would be very grateful for its return, and I can assure you that there will be no questions asked.

Julian Barnes is the author of thirteen novels, including The Sense of an Ending, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, and Sunday Times bestsellers The Noise of Time and The Only Story. He has also written three books of short stories, four collections of essays and three books of non-fiction, including the Sunday Times number one bestseller Levels of Life and Nothing To Be Frightened Of, which won the 2021 Yasnaya Polyana Prize in Russia. In 2017 he was awarded the Légion d’honneur.

Photo credit: Ian Macaulay

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