I have lived in books, for books, by and with books; in recent years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to live from books. And it was through books that I first realized there were other worlds beyond my own; first imagined what it might be like to be another person; first encountered that deeply intimate bond made when a writer’s voice gets inside a reader’s head. I was perhaps lucky that for the first ten years of my life there was no competition from television; and when one finally arrived into the household, it was under the strict control of my parents. They were both schoolteachers, so respect for the book and what it contained were implicit. We didn’t go to church, but we did go to the library.
My maternal grandparents were also teachers. Grandpa had a mail-order set of Dickens and a Nelson’s Encyclopaedia in about twenty-five small red volumes. My parents had classier and more varied books, and in later life became members of the Folio Society. I grew up assuming that all homes contained books; that this was normal. It was normal, too, that they were valued for their usefulness: to learn from at school, to dispense and verify information, and to entertain during the holidays. My father had collections of Times Fourth Leaders; my mother might enjoy a Nancy Mitford. Their shelves also contained the leather-bound prizes my father had won at Ilkeston County School between 1921 and 1925, mostly for ‘General Proficiency’ or ‘General Excellence’: The Pageant of English Prose, Goldsmith’s Poetical Works, Cary’s Dante, Lytton’s Last of the Barons, Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth.
None of these works excited me as a boy. I first started investigating my parents’ shelves (and those of my grandparents, and of my older brother) when awareness of sex dawned. Grandpa’s library contained little lubricity except a scene or two in John Masters’s Bhowani Junction; my parents had William Orpen’s The Outline of Art with several important black-and-white illustrations; but my brother owned a copy of Petronius’s Satyricon, which was the hottest book by far on the home shelves. The Romans definitely led a more riotous life than the one I witnessed around me in Northwood, Middlesex. Banquets, slave girls, orgies, all sorts of stuff. I wonder if my brother noticed that after a while some of the pages of his Satyricon were almost falling from the spine. Foolishly, I assumed that all his ancient classics must have similar erotic content. I spent many a dull day with his Hesiod before concluding that this wasn’t the case.
The local high street included an establishment we referred to as ‘the bookshop’. In fact, it was a fancy-goods store plus stationer’s with a downstairs room, about half of which was given over to books. Some of them were quite respectable—Penguin classics, Penguin and Pan fiction. Part of me assumed that these were all the books that there were. I mean, I knew there were different books in the public library, and there were school books, which were again different; but in terms of the wider world of books, I assumed this tiny sample was somehow representative. Occasionally, in another suburb or town, we might visit a ‘real’ bookshop, which usually turned out to be a branch of W. H. Smith.
The only variant book-source came if you won a school prize (I was at City of London School, then on Victoria Embankment next to Blackfriars Bridge). Winners were allowed to choose their own books, usually under parental supervision. But again, this was somehow a narrowing rather than a broadening exercise. You could choose them only from a selection available at a private showroom in an office block on the South Bank: a place both slightly mysterious and utterly functional. It was, I later discovered, yet another part of W. H. Smith. Here were books of weight and worthiness, the sort to be admired rather than perhaps ever read. Your school prize would have a particular value, you chose a book for up to that amount, whereupon it vanished from your sight, to reappear on Lord Mayor’s Prize Day, when the Lord Mayor of London, in full regalia, would personally hand it over to you. Now it would contain a pasted-in page on the front endpaper describing your achievement, while the cloth cover bore the gilt-embossed school arms. I can remember little of what I obediently chose when guided by my parents. But in 1963 I won the Mortimer English prize, and, being now seventeen, must have gone by myself to that depository of seriousness, where I found (whose slip-up could it have been?) a copy of Ulysses. I can still see the disapproving face of the Lord Mayor as his protectively gloved hand passed over to me this notoriously filthy novel.
By now, I was beginning to view books as more than just utilitarian: sources of information, instruction, delight or titillation. First there was the excitement and meaning of possession. To own a certain book—and to choose it without help—was to define yourself. And that self-definition had to be protected, physically. So I would cover my favourite books (paperbacks, inevitably, out of financial constraint) with transparent Fablon. First, though, I would write my name—in a recently acquired italic hand, in blue ink, underlined with red—on the edge of the inside cover. The Fablon would then be cut and fitted so that it also covered and protected the ownership signature. Some of these books—for instance, David Magarshak’s Penguin translations of the Russian classics—are still on my shelves.
Self-definition was one kind of magic. And then I was slowly introduced to another kind: that of the old, the secondhand, the non-new book. I remember a line of Auden first editions in the glass-fronted bookcase of a neighbour: a man, moreover, who had actually known Auden decades previously, and even played cricket with him. These facts seemed to me astonishing. I had never set eyes on a writer, or known anyone who had known a writer. I might have heard one or two on the wireless, seen one or two on television in a ‘Face to Face’ interview with John Freeman. But our family’s nearest connection to Literature was the fact that my father had read modern languages at Nottingham University, where the Professor was Ernest Weekley, whose wife had run off with D. H. Lawrence. Oh, and my mother had once seen R. D. Smith, husband of Olivia Manning, on a Birmingham station platform. Yet here were the ownership copies of someone who had known one of the country’s most famous living poets. Further, these books contained Auden’s still-echoing words in the form in which they had first come into the world. I sensed this magic sharply, and wanted part of it. So, from my student years, I became a book-collector as well as a book-user, and discovered that bookshops weren’t all owned by W. H. Smith.
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. This was a time when most towns of reasonable size had at least one large, long-established secondhand bookshop, often found within the shadow of the cathedral or city church; as I remember, you could usually park right outside for as long as you wanted. Without exception these would be independently owned shops—sometimes with a selection of new books at the front—and I immediately felt at home in them. The atmosphere, for a start, was so different. Here books seemed to be valued, and to form part of a continuing culture. By now, I probably preferred secondhand books to new ones. In America such items were disparagingly referred to as ‘previously owned’; but this very continuity of ownership was part of their charm. A book dispensed its explanation of the world to one person, then another, and so on down the generations; different hands held the same book and drew sometimes the same, sometimes a different wisdom from it. Old books showed their age: they had fox-marks the way old people had liver-spots. They also smelt good—even when they reeked of cigarettes and (occasionally) cigars. And many might disgorge pungent ephemera: ancient publishers’ announcements and old bookmarks—often for insurance companies or Sunlight soap.
So I would drive to Salisbury, Petersfield, Aylesbury, Southport, Cheltenham, Guildford, getting into back rooms and locked warehouses and storesheds whenever I could. I was much less at ease in places which smelt of fine buildings, or which knew all too well the value of each item for sale. I preferred the democratic clutter of a shop whose stock was roughly ordered and where bargains were possible. In those days, even in shops selling new books, there was none of the ferociously fast turnaround that modern central management imposes. Nowadays, the average shelf life of a new hardback novel—assuming it can reach a shelf in the first place—is four months. Then, books would stay on the shelves until someone bought them, or they might be reluctantly put into a special sale, or moved to the secondhand department, where they might rest for years on end. That book you couldn’t afford, or weren’t sure you really wanted, would often still be there on your return trip the following year. Secondhand shops demonstrated how severe posterity’s judgment often turns out to be. Charles Morgan, Hugh Walpole, Dornford Yates, Lord Lytton, Mrs Henry Wood—there would be yards and yards of them out there, waiting for fashion to turn again. It rarely did.
I bought with a hunger which I recognise, looking back, was a kind of neediness: well, bibliomania is a known condition. Book-buying certainly consumed more than half of my disposable income. I bought first editions of the writers I most admired: Waugh, Greene, Huxley, Durrell, Betjeman. I bought first editions of Victorian poets like Tennyson and Browning (neither of whom I had read) because they seemed astonishingly cheap. The dividing line between books I liked, books I thought I would like, books I hoped I would like, and books I didn’t like now but thought I might at some future date was rarely distinct. I collected King Penguins, Batsford books on the countryside, and the Britain in Pictures series produced by Collins in the 1940s and 1950s. I bought poetry pamphlets and leather-backed French encyclopaedias published by Larousse; cartoon books and Victorian keepsakes; out-of-date dictionaries and bound copies of magazines from the Cornhill to the Strand. I bought a copy of Sensation!, the first Belgian edition of Waugh’s Scoop. I even made up a category called Odd Books, used to justify the eccentric purchases such as Sir Robert Baden-Powell’s Pig-Sticking or Hog-Hunting, Bombadier Billy Wells’s Physical Energy, Cheiro’s Guide to the Hand, and Tap-Dancing Made Easy by ‘Isolde’. All are still on my shelves, if rarely consulted. I also bought books it made no sense to buy, either at the time or in retrospect— like all three volumes (in first edition, with dust-wrappers, and definitely unread by the previous owner) of Sir Anthony Eden’s memoirs. Where was the sense in that? My case was made worse by the fact that I was, in the jargon of the trade, a completist. So, for instance, because I had admired the few plays of Shaw that I’d seen, I ended up with several feet of his work, even down to obscure pamphlets about vegetarianism. Since Shaw was so popular, and his print-runs accordingly vast, I never paid much for any of this collection. Which also meant that when, thirty years later, having become less keen on Shaw’s didacticism and self-conscious wit, I decided to sell out, a clear minus profit was made. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
Revue de presse
"Engaging, eloquent, entertaining and erudite... There is a capacious generosity throughout this book, and I would defy anyone not to leave without feeling both better informed and better disposed... It is rare indeed for a collection of occasional pieces such as this to inspire feelings of profound thankfulness." (Stuart Kelly Scotsman)
"A truly wonderful collection." (Sunday Times)
"The book relies on stylish intelligence and cool calm to accomplish its mastery… This is a coquettish book. Barnes flatters readers into feeling that they may be as shrewd, discriminating and attractive as he is." (Richard Davenport-Hines Spectator)
"A devastatingly brilliant critic." (Olivia Laing Prospect)