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Julian Barnes

“I am more optimistic, both about reading and about books… I have no Luddite prejudice against new technology; it’s just that books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information. My father’s school prizes are nowadays on my shelves, ninety years after he first won them. I’d rather read Goldsmith’s poems in this form than online.

The American writer and dilettante Logan Pearsall Smith once said: ‘Some people think that life is the thing; but I prefer reading.’ When I first came across this, I thought it witty; now I find it—as I do many aphorisms—a slick untruth. Life and reading are not separate activities. The distinction is false (as it is when Yeats imagines the writer’s choice between ‘perfection of the life, or of the work’). When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape—into different countries, mores, speech patterns—but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. And for this self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.”


From the prefacing essay “A Life with Books” from Julian Barnes’s collection Through the Window.

Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books.” – Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot 

Several months ago, The New York Times Magazine did a series of portraits, called “A Writer’s Room”, which chronicled authors at their desks. Barnes’s North London study is below, which was included with this description:

I have worked in this room for 30 years. It is on the first floor, overlooking the tops of two prunus trees… The room itself has always been painted the same color, a bright, almost Chinese, yellow, giving the effect of sunlight even on the darkest day… I use the computer for e-mail and shopping; the I.B.M. 196c — 30 years old itself — for writing (or rather, second drafting: nowadays I generally first draft by hand). It is getting increasingly difficult to find ribbons and lift-off tape, but I shall use the machine until it drops. It hums quietly, as if urging me on — whereas the computer is inert, silent, indifferent. The room is usually very untidy: like many writers, I aspire to be a clean-desk person, but admit the daily reality is very dirty. So I have to walk carefully as I enter my study; but am always happy to be here.

Julian Barnes in His Study

Read on:

  • Barnes on the question of whether life is a narrative
  • Barnes on modern, secular notions of happiness
  • Yours truly wrote a few words on why novels will never completely fade