Short story review, ‘The Defence of the Book’ by Julian Barnes

The Defence of the Book is a visualisation of an alternative future of England.  So in this short story despite England’s deprivation of moral and economic success, books have increased in value and importance. This happens subsequently when the government deems libraries ‘valueless’ and plans to destroy them. Towards the end of the story we learn that the survival of the books were crucial if the ‘culture of learning were (to be) kept alive’. Also it is heavily suggested that the Government’s decision to bring an end to libraries was to remove all future political threats in order to maintain power.  Thus the message that Barnes wanted to convey was how fundamentally vital books are to us and that they’re undervalued in our society.

Barnes titled his short story The Defence of the Book to exhibit themes of passion and rebellion, specifically among the working class. The author may have wanted to convey the idea that if England were to ever break away from Britain and isolation from Europe and the rest of the world, the Government would become very totalitarian and less democratic as a result of poverty. This would instinctively create rebellion as the lives of people would become less valuable and political decisions would generally be made to not benefit the people. The theme of passion is presented through the peoples’ will to preserve the books. The people are striving to maintain them, and the youths begin to appreciate and value them because the authority illegalises them.

The story begins in exposition, an extract of an article in which the story was set, and this gives us the general context and setting. England, now ‘Old England’, gives the story its futuristic setting. We see a vulnerable England after Scotland and Wales have voted for independence, evicted from Europe and rejected by every other country, including the USA.

There are no characters that are discussed in great detail and we know nothing of the narrator or his opinion of the events, but few specific names are mentioned in relation to the English authority and the preservation of the books. Angela Merkel, who is in reality the current German leader, is the ‘European President for life’ in the story. There is also mention of a ‘book-loving milkman’, who is responsible  for the first ‘secret underground library’, which subsequently led to the multiplication of the books and the increase of value among youths as they were ‘forbidden by authority’.

The short story format is incredibly effective to this plot. He allows it to be fast-paced and, in some cases, more convenient to read because of its length. In The Defence of the Book, emotion and tension builds up around the chronological order of information, ‘Trade collapsed, and the nation’s infrastructure with it. The Health Service, long privatised…’, this allows a more vivid scenery of ‘Old England’ by emphasising the need to preserve knowledge and culture.

The Defence of the Book is a compelling and thought-provoking story. We get the idea of a futuristic, yet completely realistic version of Orwellian-style way of life and political setting.

A link to the short story can be found here:


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