Arts: A man of books

Julian Barnes may not be a completist collector. But he does like to dabble. By Andrew Lycett
Serious book collectors cannot afford opinions. They wage dedicated campaigns to acquire morocco-bound first editions with marbled end-papers and gold tooling, sub-standard second impressions with spelling mistakes or dropped capitals on the title page, and even mundane publicity handouts, like the lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, who regularly attends Julian Barnes's book signings with a suitcase full of literary impedimenta - material that the author often did not know existed.

Barnes is not like that. He realised he lacked the killer instinct when, some time in the late 1980s, he told a bookseller friend that he had completed his Philip Larkin collection. "Oh, so you've got North Ship then?" asked the professional, referring to an elusive 1945 volume. Barnes said he had passed it by because he did not think it very good. "I could see from his disdainful look that he thought I wasn't a real book collector. I realised I was admitting that I no longer bowed down to the myth of completeness. I had reached the point where my initial urge to own everything by a writer I admired had burnt itself off."

With his store of modern first editions and his eclectic taste in English and French Victorians, Barnes is still enough of a collector to open the 37th Antiquarian Book Fair at Grosvenor House tomorrow. He follows such distinguished predecessors as Princess Margaret and the Duke of Devonshire, though this year the organisers opted for a practising author.

Barnes's volumes line the walls of the large, unfusty library on the first floor of his detached north London house. In the same way that Barnes is not a book collector, this is not really a library. The books compete with Marc cartoons and a full-sized billiard table. They seem to have some plan: the Waugh first editions are there, the modern poetry is there. Indeed, Barnes is a fastidious and orderly man. But, as he says, pointing to a run of Updike novels, "I don't know where my 'collection' ends and my reading copies begin."

Barnes began buying books at Oxford in the mid-1960s - initially first editions of Waugh; moving to Greene, Huxley, Orwell and Auden; and then back into the 19th century with Trollope, Dickens et al. It was the first time he had any disposable income, and the opportunities were great. "In those days bookshops actually stocked books," he says. "You could get five Evelyn Waugh first editions off the Blackwell shelves, plus the last collection of Stephen Spenders, which was 10 years old. Booksellers thought, 'He's a good writer, we will sell this eventually.' " To prove the point, he pulls down a 1957 "first" of Gilbert Pinfold, with its self-conscious undergraduate Italic "Julian Barnes 10.v.66.". "That more leisurely style of stocking helped and encouraged me."

Soon Barnes had the acquisitive bug. He had to have Waugh's earliest published story, The Balance, in its original 1926 Chapman and Hall anthology, Georgian Studies. Bibliophilia took him to new parts of the country, like a schoolboy discovering the world through his stamps. An early coup was an original of the first two cantos of Byron's Don Juan, which he bought (slightly foxed) in Aylesbury for 12/6d. He tripped up when he declined Auden's rare Poems (1930) for pounds 5, opting for three Waugh first editions. "It is a terrible mistake to think one can get bulk," he says, particularly as he later paid pounds 150 for the same Auden volume, though with the dedication: "To Leonard Woolf from Naomi Mitchinson".

In Hastings, he found another type of book he values. This was a mint early Ulysses, complete with a card from Shakespeare and Company. "The shape of the page is very different from this country, with that rare blue on the cover. The fact that it's cut and read, I like. You can see the English man or woman buying it in Paris in 1924 and smuggling it back into this country."

That act of imagination is important to the novelist. "One of the attractions is recreating that sense of the first readers of that book and feeling it in your hand as they would have felt it, and sniffing it and looking at the typeface." Thus he has abjured fine bindings and French editions de luxe and gone, as one of many diversions, for early 20th-century French picture books, such as Heroic France and Her Allies, leather-bound and produced, as he puts it, "with all the efficiency and high finish of Larousse". In an upstairs annexe he has a shelf of odd books and manuals, like the Water Cure Manual (1847) and Pig Sticking or Hog-hunting (1924) by Lord Baden Powell.

As Barnes became a published author, his attitude to collecting changed. At one stage he considered the first edition the acme of the writing process. But, faced with his own literals, he realised the imperfections of the genre. He also became more aware of the soul-destroying nature of his pursuit. He recalls coveting a friend's seldom-found first edition of Waugh short stories, Mr Loveday's Little Outing. "My friend didn't collect books. He'd bought it for 4/-, but wouldn't let me have it because he saw the horrible acquisitive emotions going on within me. I resented this deeply and hated the fact that I resented it."

Barnes has now become more selective. He wants "fine working copies", like his sumptuous 15-volume edition of Matthew Arnold (1903). There are still gaps, of course. As author of Flaubert's Parrot, he would like a first edition of Madame Bovary, but this costs around pounds 4,000 - 10 times anything he has ever paid. He makes do with a spidery English first edition, translated by Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor. He also has a Zola first, Les Haines, dedicated to the poet Francois Coppee and, as consolation, a Flaubert autographed letter that he keeps hidden away.

This only reinforces his enthusiasm for "deaccessioning". He points to some Iris Murdoch and a mountain of periodicals he wants out. But his good intentions are not so easy to fulfil. The Kelmscott Bookshop in Baltimore recently sent him a first edition of Ford Madox Ford's Some Do Not... (1924), which he had sought for 15 years. Now he has all the green-spined volumes of Ford's First World War quartet, which he rates highly. He says he has no ambition to own all Ford's work, which runs to some 80 books. But the same parcel from the United States also included (unsolicited) a mint, gothicky copy of Ford's The Fifth Queen Crowned (1908). This is the third volume of a trilogy and Barnes does not have the other two. He is wrestling with strong, conflicting emotions at this very moment.

n The 37th Antiquarian Book Fair is at Grosvenor House, Park Lane, London, from tomorrow until Saturday 29 June. Entry by catalogue, 100 of which have been signed by Julian Barnes (price pounds 20) for the next generation of book collectors