Thoughts on A Life with Books by Julian Barnes

When A Life With Books by Julian Barnes came into stock at work, the boss exclaimed how it must be the tiniest book we sell. At a mere twenty-six pages, I think I’d have to agree with him. It looks more like a leaflet, to be honest.

During a quiet moment free from customers I began flicking through it, and actually enjoyed what I was reading. However, due to its size – I feel like I’m being extremely discriminatory – it was very hard to read without bending the cover back slightly. Therefore, I decided taking ownership of it would be the best option. It was, overall, only £1.99.

You probably know Julian Barnes from his The Sense of an Ending fame. A Life with Books is essentially his defence of the paperback novel, in all its tactile glory. Barnes writes,

“Every book feels and looks different in your hands; every Kindle download feels and looks exactly the same.”

He’s right, of course. I love my Kindle: I use it to buy crappy paperbacks that I’d rather not have cluttering my bookshelf, and it’s handy for travel. The sample before you buy system is also incredibly useful and cost-efficient. However, for novels that I know I’ll enjoy, or ones with exceptionally lovely covers, I feel that they have to be added to my bookshelves.

Regarding the future of the paperback novel, Barnes states that books must become more desirable in order to survive modernity. We must be drawn to their covers, the way they feel in our hands. And how they smell, of course. Yet there is the risk, as Barnes mentions, that the Kindle will begin emitting subtle scents appropriate to each book. Would that be taking it too far? Barnes also defends the local and independent bookshop, a sentiment I must now echo after beginning work at my own local bookseller.

Barnes is a book-lover, that’s for sure. He asserts that “reading and life and not separate but symbiotic”, which I think is very aptly put. Moreover, he puts an interesting spin on the belief that books are made for escapism with this statement:

“When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.”

I do agree: all of my favourite pieces of fiction show life in all its intricacies and trivialities, re-creating and celebrating the true essence of living. Nonetheless, in reading I will always enjoy the escape from my own life and into another, more exciting one. Is that really so bad?


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It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at

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