Julian Barnes echoes Updike’s love of books, with greater optimism

From a recently published piece by Julian Barnes on “Books, Books, Books” that was a version of a speech delivered at Christie’s, London “to mark First Editions, Second Thoughts, an auction of annotated first edition books and works of art from internationally renowned contemporary artists and authors, in support of English PEN”:

“I have been a book reader, a book buyer, a book sniffer, a book collector and, in recent times, a regretful book discarder,” said Barnes, who also quoted American Anglophile essayist Logan Pearsal Smith: “Some people say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” Barnes added, “This is funny and wry, but in my view entirely wrong. Reading isn’t something you do when you’re not living, or when life has let you down, or you are incapacitated in some way. Nor is reading just a part of living. Reading is living, and only reading fully explains what this thing called life is.”

Recalling Updike, Barnes asked, “And what of the Future of the Book, that question much posed in recent times. The physical book, that is. John Updike, in a late poem, ‘The Author Observes his Birthday, 2005’wrote lovingly of his early years of being a writer and of seeing ‘my halt words strut in type’. He goes on:

“[…] And then to have my spines
line up upon the shelf, one more each year,
however out of kilter ran my life!

“I too remember that feeling, though in my case it was more like a book every two years. In the same poem, Updike writes with melancholy – indeed pessimism – of the future of the printed book:

“A life poured into words – apparent waste
intended to preserve the thing consumed.
For who, in that unthinkable future
when I am dead, will read? The printed page
was just a half-millennium’s brief wonder.

“I am much less pessimistic. Book-buying, as we saw, went up during lockdown. The appetite for the physical book appears undiminished, perhaps even increasing. The physical book is, as someone else might put it, the perfect piece of delivery equipment for what it contains – words, pleasure, truth. But I’m sure I don’t have to convince any of you of that.”

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