Bento’s Sketchbook

A meditation, in words and images, on the practice of drawing, by the author of Ways of Seeing

The seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza—also known as Benedict or Bento de Spinoza—spent the most intense years of his short life writing. A sporadic draughtsman, he also carried with him a sketchbook. After his sudden death, his friends rescued letters, manuscripts, notes—but no drawings.

For years, John Berger has imagined finding Bento's sketchbook without knowing what its pages might hold, but wanting to see the drawings alongside his surviving words. When one day a friend gave Berger a beautiful, virgin sketchbook, John said "This is Bento's!" and he began to draw, taking his inspiration from the philosopher's vision.

The result is Bento's Sketchbook—an exploration of the practice of drawing and a meditation on how art guides our gaze to the world: to flowers, to the human body, to the pitilessness of the new world order and the forms of resistance to it.


  • “Inspiring, challenging and rewarding.”
  • “Characteristically sui generis.”
  • “Electric with thought and energy... Berger's words and images, rendered serene by age and habit, provide an exhilarating and unflinching account of global devastation and ordinary life.”
  • “Displays his trademark lyrical precision.”
  • “The book coheres because Berger’s is a humane and uniquely confiding voice, and this voice is co–extensive with his skill as a draftsman. The two attributes act in concert with Spinoza’s enigmatic philosophical propositions. All three constitute a singular act of witness.”
  • “This beautifully produced book, illustrated with Berger's drawings, is as much a meditation on the art of drawing as a commentary on philosophy...Whether he is writing about art or about the oppressed, Berger is a dab hand at what might be called semi-mystical exegesis. His stories are often like fables, and his explication – colourfully grounded but picaresque – is admirably lucid.”


  • John Berger at the BFI

    To commemorate the 40th anniversary of John Berger's influential Ways of Seeing, the groundbreaking book and television series which have become staples of art critcism, the British Film Institute is staging a series of screenings and events based upon the author's small-screen films.

    Berger's stunning series explored the history of representation in Western art, interrogating well-worn tropes of classical art education with a razor-sharp Marxist critique. The book and series cemented Berger's role as one of Britain's most lucid and engaging cultural critics, a role he continues to fill today with his challenging, sharply-written books on aesthetics, culture and contemporary politics, including Hold Everything Dear and Bento's Sketchbook.

    As well as screening the original Ways of Seeing in it's entirety, the BFI season also features his early television work for BBC's Monitor and Granada TV, and runs throughout April. A selection of Berger's books will also be on sale at the event.

    Visit BFI Online for more information on the series.

  • Verso titles selected as Books of the Year 2011 across UK broadsheets and periodicals

    As the year draws to a close, newspapers have been asking the great and the good which books have most impressed them in 2011. Here we have collected the Verso books that were featured.

    In the New Statesman, Guardian and Observer Books of the Year round ups, Hari Kunzru selected two Verso books as standing out from other books published this year. He explained the appeal of the titles to the New Statesman:

    Hari Kunzru 

     With the Occupy movement gaining ground throughout the world,  McKenzie Wark's smart overview of the situationist movement, The Beach Beneath the Street: the Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, feels particularly timely. For years, Laura Oldfield Ford, who is very influenced by situationism, has produced a fanzine, based on her derives around London, with words and beautiful, confrontational line drawings of the city's forgotten people and neglected places. Now, Savage Messiah has been collected in book form. It is a wake-up call to anyone who can only see modern cities through the lens of gentrification.

    In the Guardian feature on the Best Books of 2011, a number of Verso titles were selected by those asked.

    Eric Hobsbawm

    Among the 2011 books that came my way I particularly welcomed Owen Jones's Chavs, a passionate and well-documented denunciation of the upper-class contempt for the proles that has recently become so visible in the British class system.

    John Lanchester

    I loved two very different books of criticism...[one was] Owen Hatherley's furiously pro-Modernist A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain

    Pankaj Mishra

    Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo stimulatingly uncovers the contradictions of an ideology that is much too self-righteously invoked.

    Ahdaf Soueif

    I'm reading Chris Harman's A People's History of the World. It's really helpful to zoom out from time to time when you're living massive events at very close quarters.

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  • "An uncommon optimism"—John Berger on BBC Radio 4 and in the Scotsman and the New Statesman

    John Berger guested on BBC Radio 4's "Front Row" show yesterday to discuss Bento's Sketchbook, and how his relationship with Britain has changed since he moved to live in France.

    Visit the BBC to listen to the interview in full.

    Susan Mansfield interviews John Berger for the Scotsman. Discussing the relationship between Spinoza's philosophy, Berger's drawings, and ways of understanding the world, Mansfield questions Berger's understanding of hope:

    Spinoza has been a favourite of Berger's since he was a teenager, "when I read not always understanding, perhaps very seldom". In the writing of the book, he regarded the philosopher more as a "companion" than a "master". Both Berger and Spinoza share a fascination with the nature of looking: Bento worked as a lens grinder in the new science of optics; both men liked to draw. "Right from the beginning, I didn't think it was a book about Spinoza. I thought of it as a book about the world we are living in, and which so often we refuse to look at, for the good and the bad. The project was to try to see the world today in which we are living."

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Other books by John Berger