‘I have lived in books, for books, by and with books … and it was through books that I first realised there were other worlds beyond my own.’

Julian Barnes


My full name is Wijnandus Wilhelmus Mijnhardt (usually known as Wijnand). I was born in Amsterdam on 15 May 1950, and moved to Hilversum at three years of age. I am the second of three children, born into an orthodox Protestant family. As a young boy I used to browse through the shelves of my grandfather’s library, which were full of seventeenth-century books by the ‘old writers’ of the Dutch Second Reformation movement. One large volume by Abraham van de Velde: The Miracles of the Most High (1668), emphasising God’s role in the foundation of the Dutch Republic, made a deep impression on me. Books have governed my life ever since. Playing outside with my friends was all very well but reading always came first. Twice a week I would borrow the maximum number of books allowed from the local library and devour them in a few days. All my pocket money went on books – because books provided the most accessible route into knowledge of all kinds.

After delving into a variety of fields, I decided that the study of history would be the best way of satisfying my great appetite for general knowledge. The university library was very important in this respect, but building up a library of my own was better still. Second-hand bookshops and book auctions held out such temptations that I constantly needed jobs – from bread deliveries to teaching – to pay the bills. My love of books, whether about the eighteenth-century book trade, twentieth-century brickworks, or Mediaeval incunabula, has never waned. That is why I never became a specialist, but preferred to remain a generalist, fulfilling my lifelong passion for the widest range of ‘useless’ knowledge.