A Life with Books by Julian Barnes

It’s all that Annabel’s fault! She did a post last month on an Independent Bookshop Week event she attended and mentioned in passing (as well as showing a picture) the essays put out in the past by the IBW organsers to celebrate books and bookshops; and one of these was by Julian Barnes. You might have noticed that I’ve rediscovered Barnes’ writing recently, and rather marvellous it is too. And with a title like “A Life with Books”, this little essay sounded essential for me, especially as I’d loved Robert Macfarlane’s “The Gifts of Reading” so much. So of course I had to send off for it, didn’t I?? 😀

“A Life… ” is 27 pages of loveliness wherein Barnes looks back at the books he’s encountered over his reading life, meditates on them and discusses the necessity of the printed book; and I’m completely in accord with his views on the latter. He rather cleverly recognises that “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.” Thinking of all the attractive editions being brought out by any number of publishers, particularly some of my favourite (often smaller) imprints, I think he’s definitely spot on.

I also found unexpected resonances in his discussions of the fate of bookshops. Like Barnes, I come from a time “when most towns of reasonable size had at least one large, long-established second-hand bookshop, often found within the shadow of the cathedral or city“. Barnes’ adventures as a rabid bookbuyer were entertaining and gave me attacks of nostalgia; however, all of us booklovers are aware of the declining number of bookshops on the streets. Barnes particularly focused on a city in which I used to work, Salisbury, which was riddled with bookshops in the early 1980s – bliss! One such was D.M. Beach of Salisbury, located in a wonderful old building on the corner of the High Street which must have cost a fortune in rent. It housed the most wonderful antiquarian books and was vaguely intimidating for an impoverished youngster. Barnes reflects sadly that “All those old, rambling, beautifully-sited shops have gone” and Beach’s is no exception – it closed in 1999.

Barnes is always an excellent writer, and this elegant little essay ended up being an affecting paean for books, bookshops and what they can do for our lives. Fortunately paper books seem to be fighting back, with a wonderful array of lovely publications from imprints who are passionate about them appearing left, right and centre. Bookshops are having a harder time, and I personally live in a biggish town with only a Waterstones – so I do try to support that so we can at least have a bookish presence on the High Street. Anyway, I’m so glad that Annabel’s post nudged me into tracking down a copy of this; I may even have a collection of Barnes’ essays somewhere and on the strength of this one, it will be well worth reading! 😀