Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

30 June 2023

Becoming One of the British Library’s Most Prolific Authors | User Stories


Alex Johnson has had six books published by British Library Publishing, the Library’s dedicated in-house publishing team. Trained as a journalist, he spent 15 years at The Independent, and is the online editor of Fine Books and Collections magazine. 

I grew up in quite a bookish family. My father was an English teacher and an archivist. My mum was a librarian, and ran a mobile bookshop. I've always liked reading and writing. Because of that, I went into journalism, initially – not a great reason to go into journalism. But it was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to write books. 

I think I’ve now written six books for the British Library. I'm interested in books as objects, the world of books, and the whole idea of reading, and that's in line with what they do. As a library, I think they're seen as a force for good. People are very respectful of an institution that's been going for so long. My mother is delighted that I've done so many things with the British Library, although I suspect she's still hoping that I'm going to become a lawyer.


Tintin’s stayed with me throughout my life

My first book for the Library was A Book of Book Lists: A Bibliophile’s Compendium. My own three favourite books are A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (that's 12 books, but I'm counting it as one), Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor and The Adventures of Tintin. When I was younger, I was a big fan of Tintin; then when I did A Level French, I started reading it in French. My wife was born and brought up in Spain, so eventually I started reading it in Spanish, too. It’s stayed with me throughout my life.

The next two books of mine that the Library published were Shelf Life, Writers on Books and Reading, and Edward Lear and the Pussycat: Famous Writers and their Pets. I was surprised by how many writers wrote with their pets sitting on their laps. Edith Wharton used to write in bed, surrounded by her dogs. John Steinbeck's dog Toby ate the first manuscript of Of Mice and Men, which, it seems, Steinbeck took in his stride. 


Charles Dickens had a pet raven

Charles Dickens had a pet raven whom he wrote into Barnaby Rudge, and which arguably inspired Edgar Allen Poe's poem ‘The Raven’. He had two or three with the same name – various incarnations of this raven, Grip, who were either lovely or appalling. After he died, they had one of them stuffed, and now it's in the Free Library of Philadelphia. 

When writing about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her dog Flush, I was intrigued to find out how widespread dognapping was in Victorian England, a subject I'd previously known nothing about at all.

In 2020, the Library published my book How to Give Your Child a Lifelong Love of Reading. I think the important thing is to be guided by the child, and not be prescriptive about what's good. Children are more likely to read and finish books that they've chosen themselves than those which their parents have forced on them. Whatever they're enthusiastic about, whether it's Charlotte Brontë, or football, or spiders, books can be useful paths to getting more out of an interest.


How many Dylan Thomases does it take to change a lightbulb?

When I was a child, we regularly went to the library. I'd go with my parents: we'd take out whatever the maximum allowance was, whizz through them and go back the week after. I think that was an early introduction to how marvellous libraries are. My wife and I have done the same with our children: they've done summer reading projects at the library. I grew up in Shropshire, and the local library was the one where the poet Philip Larkin got his first job as a librarian. He had very mixed feelings about the residents, and the ambivalence was mutual. 

The next book I wrote for the Library was The Book Lover’s Joke Book. How many Dylan Thomases does it take to change a lightbulb? None, they just rage, rage against the dying of the light. I'm here all week. Don't forget to tip your waitresses.

This autumn, I have another book coming out with the Library: The Book Lover's Almanac: A Year of Literary Events, Letters, Scandals and Plot Twists. It’s a day-by-day look at the world of books and literature. We're starting off each chapter with births and deaths, and when books were first published or plays first performed. Every day there’s a little story about things that happened on that date, and each month finishes with writers’ famous last words. 

As told to Lucy Peters.