Pick of the Darwin Room

The Darwin Room is officially home to our Darwin Rare Books collection, and while we certainly do have a few tomes you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere, there is so much more waiting to be found on the shelves than just ‘rare’; vintage, collectible, quirky, beautiful, weird, worn and plenty of other adjectives can be justly used to describe the books on offer.

Working in there is a sheer delight. With walls covered with leather bindings and tables laid out with decorative covers, only a globe-come-drinks cabinet is missing to complete the gentleman’s study circa 1865 vibe (which, management assures me will not be happening anytime soon lest we change our name from Book Barn International to Black Books).


You become attached to particular titles by sheer familiarity: moving shelves around, displaying books for customers and so on. You don’t really have time to read them while on the job, but you do get to admire the illustrated and photographic plates between the pages. The following are just a few of the ones that have grown on me and, I imagine, may grow on you too.

The Hunting of The Snark (Lighthouse Books, 1941)


Best remembered today for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll was the master of nonsense with a philosophical bent, and The Hunting of the Snark is, to my mind, his masterpiece. An Agony told in eight ‘Fits’ this is the tale of a voyage hunting for the titular beast, and the mystifying fate of the crew who foolishly take up the challenge.


When it was  published in 1876 it was illustrated by Henry Holiday who, though a very talented artist, failed to capture the surreal nature of Carroll’s poem. The illustrations for this edition however, provided by Gormenghast author Mervyn Peake, are the perfect accompaniment. Peake’s drawings have an uneasy bubbling quality, blending with the silly and macabre feel of the words, a particular favourite of mine being his Bandersnatch (a beast mentioned in the Jabberwocky), which is shown above.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Siegle, Hill & Co. 1914)


The Rubaiyat are a collection of stanzas written by the Persian astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and (chiefly here) poet Omar Khayyam in the eleventh century. Long regarded a masterpiece in the Middle East, it became a cultural phenomenon in victorian England and America thanks to the translation and reinterpretation of Edward Fitzgerald. The reader is urged to enjoy the here and now, the few pleasure we can find in our transient existence – a message as relevant today as it was nine hundred years ago.

This sumptuous edition is a recreation of Sangorski & Sutcliffe’s infamous Great Omar, a jewel encrusted illuminated manuscript that sank on the Titanic. Though a Pre-Raphaelite style may not immediately come to mind while meditating upon the wine-soaked musings of a medieval persian astronomer, the interplay of colour, darkness and decoration make the illuminations and calligraphy a gorgeous match to the poem.

The Natural History of Plants (Blackie & Son, 1894)


Written by Anton Kerner Von Marilaun and translated from the german by F. W. Oliver et al, this is a dense two volume work that does not skimp on technical detail. While at first it may seem like a dry title, the sheer breadth of Von Marilaun’s research is astonishing. More than a thousand different species are described, and, most interesting of all, some are illustrated.


There are more than two hundred black and white woodcuts, but the sixteen colour plates are the standouts here. Not only are the drawings beautiful, they are overlaid with a semi-transparent sheet that names each plant found in the picture, allowing for easy reference back to the text.

The Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals (John Murray, 1892)


It would be remiss of me not to include a book by Charles Darwin in this pick from a collection that bears his name, and there is one that clearly shines through. The Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals was the third of Darwin’s books on evolution, where he shows that the expression of emotions is universal among all humans, and is descended from that found in other animals. There are also some musings on psychology, which had a great influence on Freud and psychoanalysis.

Not only is the book illustrated, it was actually breaking new ground by doing so. Though he was not the first person to do it, Darwin’s use of photographs as scientific evidence was revolutionary and extraordinarily effective. By looking at the heliotype plates and various illustrations (some of psychiatric patients), and seeing the range of expressions and commonality between them, it is easy to grasp Darwin’s argument.



Celebrating Bristol’s Allen Lane And His Belief In Affordable Books

Born in Bristol in 1902, just a stone’s throw away from Bookbarn, Allen Lane may not be a household name but he is an incredibly important figure in the history of the printed book. Together with his brothers John and Richard, he founded Penguin Books – and in doing so brought many works of fiction to a mass market audience.


Lane’s vision was to make quality books available to all at affordable prices. Legend has it that on a train journey in 1934, Lane found himself on the platform at Exeter with nothing available worth reading. He conceived of paperback editions of literature of proven quality which would be cheap enough to be sold from a vending machine; the first was set up outside Henderson’s in Charing Cross Road, London, and dubbed the “Penguincubator”. The first Penguin books published cost sixpence, which was the same as a packet of cigarettes – and they were colour coded. Fiction was orange, biography was blue and crime was green. It was the first time in history good writing and literature had been available to so many.


Since that time, Penguin has brought audiences writing from some of the best known names in literature; including D.H. Lawrence, Roald Dahl and Eric Carle (who wrote The Hungry Caterpiller). Lane was arguably a visionary –  with a passionate interest in making great works of fiction readily available to all.  In 1952, twenty years after the founding of Penguin Books he was awarded a knighthood for services to publishing. His interest in offering good titles inexpensively influenced the reading habits of people across the UK and still affects how we view books today.

With the announcement in November last year of ‘Designed by Apple in California’, a coffee table book with a RRP of £225, it’s surely more important than ever to remember the ethos of Allen Lane and the way his work contributed to our relationship with the written word. At Bookbarn we love to celebrate Penguin Books as symbols of Lane’s spirit as well as for the beautifully designed and attractive little pieces of magic they are. They fly off of the shelves of our Darwin Rare Books room and as they do so, the legacy of Bristol’s Allen Lane lives on.



10 Of The Best Songs Inspired by Books

-by Bookbarn’s Retail Manager Janey Thornton

It was the famous Austrian painter Gustav Klimt who said ‘Art is a line around your thoughts.’ But what about when that line has already been drawn? The idea that art can inspire art is a captivating one – and for me it doesn’t get more interesting than listening to great songs inspired by great books. Below you’ll find a list of my ‘Top 10’ songs inspired by books.

  1. Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush (1978)

This song almost needs no introduction – written by Bush when she was just 18, the song is based on the novel of the same name. Bush was inspired to write the song by the last ten minutes of a 1967 BBC mini-series based on Wuthering Heights. She then read the book and discovered that she shared her birthday (30 July) with Emily Brontë.

2. I Am The Walrus by the Beatles (1967)

In 1967, John Lennon received a letter from a pupil at his old school which mentioned that one of the school’s English masters was making his class analyse Beatles’ lyrics. Lennon was so amused by this that he decided to write his next Beatles song  using the most confusing references he could. I Am The Walrus was the result – taking its title from a reference in Lewis Carrol’s Alice Through The Looking Glass.

3. Don’t Look Back In Anger by Oasis (1995)

Don’t Look Back In Anger was the fifth single released off of Oasis’ album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? Written by Noel Gallagher, it takes its name from John Osborne’s similarly titled 1956 play Look Back In Anger. 

4. Scentless Apprentice by Nirvana (1993)

In a 1993 interview with Ehm, Kurt Cobain stated that his favorite book was Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, the inspiration for the Nirvana song Scentless Apprentice.

“I read Perfume by Patrick Suskind about 10 times in my life, and I can’t stop reading it. It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time. It just doesn’t leave me,” Cobain told Ehm at the time. “Cause I’m a hypochondriac and it just affects me–it makes me want to cut off my nose.”

5. Ramble On by Led Zeppelin (1969)

The lyrics of Ramble On were highly influenced by J R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. Throughout the song there are references to Mordor and the infamous character Gollum, such as: ‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor/I met a girl so fair/But Gollum, and the evil one crept up/And slipped away with her’. The song was co-written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and was recorded in 1969 at Juggy Sound Studio, New York.

6. Breezeblocks by alt-J (2012)

One of the songs on alt-J’s debut album An Awesome Wave released in 2012,  Breezeblocks contains multiple references to Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where The Wild Things Are. 

7. I Wanna Be Yours by Arctic Monkeys (2013)

Arctic Monkeys lead man Alex Turner has always cited his inspiration for I Wanna Be Yours as the poem of the same name by John Cooper-Clarke. As a teenager, the poem had featured on his GCSE syllabus.  He said: ‘It made my ears prick up in the classroom because it was nothing like anything I’d heard. Had I not seen him do his thing, I wouldn’t have started writing like that.’

8. Off To The Races by Lana Del Rey (2012)

Off of her album Ultraviolence, which took its name from Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, Lana Del Ray’s song Off To The Races fuses the singer’s own lyrics with lines from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Perhaps the most obvious reference to Nabokov’s protagonist Humbert Humbert is this lyrical take on the first line of Lolita: ‘Light of my life/fire of my loins/be a good baby/do what I want.’

9. The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen (1995)

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” is a folk rock song written by Bruce Springsteen. It is the title track to his eleventh studio album, released in 1995. The character Tom Joad, from John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, is mentioned in the title and narrative.

Besides The Grapes of Wrath, the song also takes inspiration from “The Ballad of Tom Joad” by Woody Guthrie, which in turn was inspired by John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel.

10. Gravity’s Rainbow by Klaxons (2007)

The title of Klaxons’ album ‘Myths Of The Near Future’ (2007) came from a collection of J.G. Ballard’s short stories. But the band also took on the cryptic (and wonderful) ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ by Thomas Pynchon too: a book renowned for its length and complexity.

William Pryor: A Life In Books

William Pryor is co-owner of Bookbarn International. The great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, he is also the author of the addiction memoir ‘Survival of the Coolest’, published in 2003.

We asked William some questions about his life in books.


Name your favourite book. 

To sound pompous: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘Philosophical Investigations’ – which is the delightfully impenetrable foundation of Linguistic Philosophy. “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.”

And to sound positively nepotistic: My grandmother Gwen Raverat’s timeless classic ‘Period Piece‘, which was recently released in a beautiful Folio Society slip-cased edition.


By which author have you read the most books?

Either Samuel Becket in my youth or Philip K Dick in my middle age.


What are you currently reading?

‘Prussian Blue’ by Philip Kerr.


What’s the best book nobody knows about?

Brunel’s ‘Great Eastern’ – a long out of print tragedy of Victorian hubris as the man battled ill fortune.


Where is the best place to read?

In bed.


What’s the longest book you’ve read?

I would like to say War & Peace, but I haven’t done it. So: ‘Shantaram’ by David Roberts.


Do you have a favourite quote from a book?

Virginia Woolf writing to my grandfather (in Virginia Woolf and the Raverats): “Is your art as chaotic as ours? I feel that for us writers the only chance now is to go out into the desert & peer about, like devoted scape­goats, for some sign of a path.”


Is there a book you regret reading?

I would have dropped it within a paragraph of its life, so no.


What is your worst reading habit?

Having more than four books “on the go”…


Roughly how many books do you own?

I would say 2 or 3 thousand, but we have cleared out a lot to that wonderful institution, Bookbarn International.


You can read more about Bookbarn International by clicking here.



Interview with a Bookbarn Winter Fayre Stallholder: Sarah Thorp from Room 212

Sarah Thorp is the owner of Room 212, an arts and crafts gallery on Bristol’s Gloucester Road. She has helped put on events such as Mayfest, the North Bristol Art Trail and Gloucester Road Christmas Street Party for the BCR Neighbourhood Partnerships – and is a Champion for the Avon Wildlife My Wild City Project.

In the run up to our second ever Winter Fayre, we asked Sarah what she loves about the local area, why she started her business and what we can expect from her Winter Fayre stall- plus much more!

What made you settle on the name ‘Room 212’? 

Room 212 was the name of the pop up shop which was here when I bought the gallery.  The shop is number 212 Gloucester Road!

What sort of things can people expect to find at the Room 212 stall?

An eclectic mix of work by local artists including handmade Christmas cards, prints, jewellery & books. I make my own upcycled vases and jewellery so I’ll bring some of them. We have our own Room 212 calendar with a different artwork on each month for just £10.

In your opinion, what is the best thing about Bristol?

The wonderful creative, independent spirit of the city.



Do you have a favourite piece of art you have made?

I’m really pleased with the Room 212 calendar as it represents all the fantastic artists we represent.

What inspired you to start Room 212?

There are so many artists in Bristol and I wanted to bring them all under one roof, and have a place to sell my own artwork as well.

Have you been to Bookbarn before, and what did you think of it?

No. I’m looking forward to visiting!

Do you enjoy winter – and if so, why?

I love creating colourful, welcoming window displays to brighten up the Gloucester Road on a winter’s day, especially for Christmas, Window Wanderland and Valentine’s Day.

How can people keep in touch with Room 212?

We have a website www.room212.co.uk with all our contact details –  plus Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


The Bookbarn Winter Fayre takes place this year on Thursday 30th November from 4pm. You can read more about it here.

Win a copy of Winter by Ali Smith!

It’s been a busy half term week here at Bookbarn, full of lots of excitable kids, Halloween treasure hunts, and a very successful children’s Bookbinding workshop.

Alongside all this excitement, we’ve been running a photo competition on our Instagram (bookbarn_international, if you were wondering). The competition is a simple one to enter, all you need to do is send us a direct message on our Instagram with a photo that sums up the Winter season to you, and then explain why in one sentence.

On Monday the 30th of October we will be announcing the winner on our Instagram page, and said lucky individual will win a free copy of Ali Smith’s brand new novel, ‘Winter’.


Here’s a synopsis of the novel to give you that little extra incentive to enter:

Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summer’s leaves? Dead litter.

The world shrinks; the sap sinks. 
But winter makes things visible. And if there’s ice, there’ll be fire.

In Ali Smith’s Winter, lifeforce matches up to the toughest of the seasons. In this second novel in her acclaimed Seasonal cycle, the follow-up to her sensational Autumn, Smith’s shape-shifting quartet of novels casts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter.

It’s the season that teaches us survival. 
Here comes Winter.

(Taken from the Penguin website)

We’re so excited to read this novel, after having enjoyed the first in the series, ‘Autumn’, and if you haven’t read any Ali Smith, we at Bookbarn recommend her work highly!

Come find us over on Instagram and share with us what Winter means to you – the photos we have had so far are leaving us feeling so cosy and festive!




The Makings of a Classic

-by BBI bookseller Daniel Kiernan

Row two in our shop is Classic Authors. On these shelves you will find the works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and … Ian Fleming? Many regard the James Bond books to be classics, but for some reason it seems wrong to put Casino Royale in the same place as The Count of Monte Cristo, even though both involve gambling and violence by the bucketful.


The question of which shelf books get placed on in our shop can be quite the humdinger, and in no category are more hums are dinged than when deciding what makes a book a Classic, or, in our case, written by a Classic Author. We use the latter label rather than the former to avoid confusion with Classics, as in, works pertaining to Greco-Roman culture and language, which can be found on the end of row thirty three (as a note, we actually call this section Greek & Roman Literature, this time to avoid confusion with classics in the sense of what this blog is about). For the rest of this article I shall use ‘classic’ to mean ‘a book suitable to be found in Classic Authors as this makes for one less word to type.

So what makes a book a classic? Looking at our shelves I am inclined to agree with Mark Twain, who observed that a classic is ‘something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read’. I’ve never read any D.H. Lawrence or W.M. Thackery, yet part of me thinks I should – quelle surprise, these authors are well represented on row two. There are, however, many authors on the shelves whose books  I have read, like Arthur Conan Doyle and George Orwell. So, while he makes a very witty observation, I believe Mr. Twain hasn’t quite got to the core of what makes a book a classic.

Publishers can be quite helpful when it comes to answering the question. Penguin and Vintage both have ranges of books they publish under a Classic imprint, and so when we get books published in this format, they usually end up on row two. But this can be deceptive. In 2013 Penguin published Morrissey’s Autobiography. Nothing wrong with that of course. Many people were eager to read it. What irked some, though, was that Penguin published it under their Classic imprint in its first printing. Morrissey’s editor believed that this work was destined to be remembered for all time, and decided to futureproof that belief by publishing it under the Classic imprint, rather than their regular one.


The outrage this arrogance caused highlights that a classic has to have been around for long enough for enough people to regard it as one. ‘Instant classic’ is a phrase often found in book reviews, and its appeal lies in its oxymoronic nature. Sometimes it is even used justly, but only time can tell for sure. The question then becomes, of course, how much time has to pass before a book can be a classic? It’s a difficult question to answer, a bit like asking how many grams of sand make a heap – there’s just no set amount.

Luckily, the publishers have come to our aid again by prefixing a selection of books in their classic imprint range with ‘Modern’. Indeed, Penguin made good use of their Modern Classics imprint to heal the wounds caused by their Morrissey debacle by later publishing Autobiography under this imprint, instead of their regular Classic one. But let’s return to Ian Fleming, whose Bond books are also published by Penguin under their Modern Classics range. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, it seems odd to lump these books together with the other books or row two, but why? The simplest answer would be snobbery. The Bond books were written as pulp entertainment, and don’t tackle the complex themes of something like Anna Karenina and lack the detailed characterisation to found in a Dickens novel. As of this, they do not deserve to share shelf space with The Greats.

Some of this may be true, but it is far from the whole story. Ultimately, I would but the Bond books in rows 6 & 7:Crime/Thriller, because that is where I think most people would look for them, regardless of whether they deserve classic status or not. Genre is often the deciding factor when it comes to placing books on the shelves. If you come to the shop looking for The Elfstones of Shannara you would expect to find it in Fantasy. It could be in General Fiction under B, but Terry Brooks is a prolific author of (usually) weighty tomes, and if we put all his books in General Fiction, there would be limited space for the works of other authors who share his surname’s initial. The same applies here: Bond books are thrillers, so it makes sense to have them alongside other works of the genre.

So practical considerations bar the Bond books from entry to row two, and ultimately it is practical considerations that matter most. We are a shop, dealing serving customers who have expectations about where books may be, and this matters more to us than philosophical arguments about the nature of things. But what about the snobbery? Fleming’s characters are fairly two dimensional, and the main theme he tackles is War, of the cold variety, and how to stop it from warming up. The snobbery argument may be fair, but many still regard the Bond books as classics, not just publishers who want to give their back catalogue more prestige, but also the reading public.


Why is this? I believe it is because these books, and others that get assigned classic status, have something in them that appeals to us across all times and cultures. Whatever that may be, it equates to showing us some aspect of human nature to which we can relate, and perhaps even from which we can learn. Oliver Twist is a classic because between its pages the virtues and vices of humanity are laid bare in Dickens’ colourful characters. Middlemarch is a classic because it deals with the realities of marriage and the place of women in society in a frank and honest realism.

And what about Goldfinger? Well, it’s a classic because it is a marvellous work of escapism that reflects the (often questionable) beliefs, desires and attitudes not only of it’s author, but of the culture that produced it as well. It also helps that it spawned a cinematic icon who, despite his many faults, is just brilliant. So, if you’re looking for copy, while I may agree that it is a classic, Classic Authors is the wrong place to look. Head to Crime/Thriller, rows 6 & 7, instead.

You can visit our website and learn more about us here.

Celebrating Bookshop Day

Saturday the 7th of October marks this year’s Bookshop Day, a celebration created by the wonderful Books Are My Bag campaign. Books Are My Bag is a nationwide campaign to celebrate bookshops.

This year, for Bookshop Day, we’re choosing to celebrate by giving you an insight into a Day in the Life of a Bookseller, through our Retail Team Leader, Emma.

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Portrait of a Bookbarn Vendor

With over 4000 vendors at BBI, we specialise in the art of finding new homes for your unwanted books. With our orders shipping worldwide, that might mean exploding your bookcase on a global scale – and continuing the journey of each and every book you once owned and (hopefully!) read yourself, once upon a time.

To give you an idea of this, we’ve created a portrait of one of our vendors and taken a look at the places their unwanted books have ended up.


Janey has worked for Bookbarn since March 2015 and became a vendor shortly after joining us. She had a mix of novels (piled up from a previous job at Waterstones) and old university books she was looking to make a bit of extra cash from. Here are just a handful of the places her books have found new homes and owners!



She says: ‘It’s funny to think of all the books I once owned in their new homes, being read by new owners. I love the fact a guidebook about weird parts of London I bought when I lived there is now in Nigeria. Or that someone in Canada is reading one of my old economics books!

You can find out more about becoming a vendor with us here.

Or to speak to one of our staff, simply call us on 01761 451 777 or send an email to bookbarn@bookbarninternational.com.

Banned Books Week At The Barn

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This week our lovely shop team leader Emma has been working on a fabulous display for Banned Books Week 2017. Banned Books week is an annual celebration of the freedom to read without censorship.

We often imagine the banning of books to be something of the past and which no longer happens. But the chief executive of Index on Censorship has recently suggested that modern forms of censorship, owing to ‘online mobs’ on social media, has actually caused a surge of censorship complaints to  publishers and authors put under a huge amount of pressure to succumb to their demands.

Banned Books week first started in the US in 1982 after the American Library Association had reported a sudden surge in attempts to have books taken out of libraries, bookshops and schools. Since that time, more than 11,300 books have been ‘challenged’ – and the number per year is said to be rising all the time.

Here is just a small selection of previously banned books we were able to find after a quick sweep of our shop.

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