Book Hunting in Britain

The Barnes Collection
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Nov. 11 2005 6:30 AM

Book Hunting in Britain

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Click here to see a slide show. When I reach Julian Barnes on the phone to tell him that I'm interested in talking about his book collection, the first words out of his mouth are that he's an "ex-collector." This piques my interest even more, I tell him, because I'm an ambivalent collector myself. I also know that there's really no such thing as an ex-collector, any more than there are ex-alcoholics or ex-gamblers. You may be staying off the stuff, but the twitch never goes away.

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Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

An hour later, I'm standing in the large library in Barnes' redbrick townhouse in Tufnell Park, a quiet North London neighborhood. Barnes is at home somewhat nervously awaiting the verdict on the Booker Prize, for which his splendid novel Arthur and George has been nominated (but did not win). Barnes goes straight into a shrewd diagnosis of the malady of collecting books: "There is something inauthentic and possibly neurotic about it," he says, noting that he would never use one of his rare first editions for the purpose of actually reading the book. "It's like women buying clothes that they're never going to wear."

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This kind of incisiveness is characteristic of Barnes' writing and seems to take visual form in his birdlike aspect, his pointy beak and pale blue eyes. His shrewdness is in full flower in Arthur and George, a novel with many essays nested inside. The book, which will be published in the United States by Knopf in January, is also a testament to the author's antiquarian taste. Revolving around a real-life mystery involving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it is filled with knowing details gleaned from a lifetime's bibliomania. The British edition is designed in faux-Victorian, with embossed lettering on the spine and no dust jacket.

When he was 18 or 19, Barnes started collecting authors he admired—"Huxley, Waugh, Greene, Auden, Eliot, and Larkin," he says. Or expected to admire—sometimes he would begin collecting, he says, "in advance of anticipated enthusiasm." He spent much of his youth going to provincial bookshops around England, where he would sift through cardboard boxes of unsorted books to fill out a collection of 19th- and 20th-century literature. Like most collectors, he most prizes volumes the value of which wasn't appreciated, such as a foxed octavo he lays down for me to examine on his oversized billiard table. It's the first two cantos of Don Juan, published anonymously in 1819. Barnes found it more than 30 years ago for the equivalent of a dollar in a shop near Salisbury Cathedral.

Barnes collects the way I do—he doesn't care about immaculate condition or the more technical "points of issue." His is a writer's collection focused on the life of the book and the author. What he responds to, Barnes says, is "getting that whiff of the first reader." For example, he likes his Dickens in the original serial parts; he takes down David Copperfield, with the original illustrations by Phiz and Victorian advertising on the inside covers. Barnes also collects copycat, spurious, and pirate editions of 19th-century best sellers—sequels to "A Christmas Carol" by various authors, and Pickwick Abroad, an unauthorized 1839 continuation of ThePickwick Papers that Dickens didn't write. Another prize is his original illustrated softbound set of Rudyard Kipling's Indian Railway Library Series from 1889. Barnes describes coming across these oddities as "the pleasure of finding things you didn't know existed."

In recent years, Barnes says, he has tried to stop book collecting because "[I] began to think I was fetishizing the first edition." He has also come to dislike what he calls the fogeyism of it. In truth, he notes, the first isn't the "pure" edition, with subsequent ones representing a falling away. First editions are often distinguished by their errors; subsequent versions may be far more faithful to the author's choice and intentions. Barnes says he also started to feel he wasn't a real collector because he was too focused on collecting works he admired and not enough on what was most collectible based on rarity. Despite his love for Philip Larkin, for instance, he never tried to acquire a copy of The North Ship, Larkin's scarce first collection of poems, because he didn't like it as much as Larkin's more mature poetry.

At a loss for shelf space, Barnes began to sell off some of his books—Auden and John Betjeman—and got more interested in vintage photographic portraits of writers and composers. He says these pictures give him the feeling of "authentic context" that first editions used to. Barnes shows me some of the photographs, which he has stacked up in his office, including Anton Chekov, Rudyard Kipling, George Sand, Mark Twain, Jean Sibelius, Graham Greene, and T.S. Eliot (Eliot is wearing shorts and knee socks on a hike in New Hampshire). Barnes also has cartoons of Waugh and Larkin by the late Marc Boxer, a Henry James letter on engraved Lamb House stationery, and a tiny sculpture of Flaubert at his desk that was sent to him by a reader. An original photograph of Gustave Flaubert, who was the inspiration for his breakout novel Flaubert's Parrot, has been eluding him.

Barnes, more than anyone else I met, reflected my own mixed feelings about collecting books. It's expensive. It benefits no one. It takes up nonexistent space in our New York apartment. It's a nerdy and pedantic thing to be into. But after a week in Britain, I am more hooked than ever and have been on a buying spree on Abebooks ever since coming back.

Paradoxically, I think working at an Internet magazine intensifies the attraction of beautiful printed objects. I hope my children will grow up to love literature, but I expect they will absorb it as readily via a screen or pod as from glued quires of printed pages. The book has had a good run. For 550 years it was the most practical way to deliver writing to multiple readers. But over the coming decades, we're likely to discover that it is not the only or the best way. By the time Google Print gets done digitizing the Bodleian Library, we will all be used to zapping novels electronically; humans will be reading them on screens, in forms that take up no space, travel anywhere, and undergo no decay. But as the Gutenberg era draws to a close, books take on greater magic as artifacts. What no longer serves as technology lives on as art.