Harry Karnac

HARRY KARNAC (1919-2014): ‘The Prince of Psychological Bookselling’

by Professor Brett Kahr

Harry-Karnac-specialist-b-011On Friday, 4th April, 2014, at approximately 2.00 a.m., Harry Karnac, the distinguished bookseller and publisher, died at the age of 94 years.  Although he had never undertaken a psychological training, had never worked with patients, and had never taught a theory seminar, the name of Harry Karnac will be remembered long after those of most contemporary mental health clinicians have faded away.  As the founder of the unique shop which still bears his name after more than half a century, and as the progenitor of a publishing firm which now produces approximately one hundred new psychotherapeutic titles each year, Harry Karnac’s contribution as an educator of psychoanalytical students and as a disseminator of psychological culture remains unparalleled.

Born on 27th November 1919, Harry Karnac became a professional bookseller early in his career, and by 1950 he had opened H. Karnac (Books), a small, unprepossessing shop at 58, Gloucester Road, in London S.W.7.  At first, Karnac sold ordinary books (such as gardening manuals, biographies,  novels, and such like).  But one memorable day, Dr Clifford Scott, a noted psychoanalyst who worked nearby at 49, Queen’s Gate Gardens, in South Kensington, not far from Harry Karnac’s shop, suggested that the young bookseller might do well to stock a pamphlet written by his psychoanalytical colleague Dr Donald Winnicott.  At this time, in the bleak post-World War II period, Harry Karnac knew virtually nothing about psychoanalysis, and although he regarded Dr. Scott’s suggestion with a certain amount of scepticism, he nevertheless ordered some copies of Winnicott’s (1949) publication The Ordinary Devoted Mother and Her Baby:  Nine Broadcast Talks (Autumn 1949), privately printed in London by C.A. Brock and Company, and hence, not widely available.  To Harry Karnac’s great delight, the Winnicott pamphlet, based on the now legendary radio talks for the BBC, sold particularly well; and before long, Karnac began to sell other psychoanalytical titles too.  Eventually, H. Karnac (Books) became the place for purchasing books on psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, and it gradually became a haven for mental health practitioners not only from Great Britain but, also, from abroad.  Indeed, no self-respecting Continental clinician visiting London would fail to pay a visit to Gloucester Road.

Site of H. Karnac Books (his shop was originally on either side of the main doorway)

Site of H. Karnac Books (his shop was originally on either side of the main doorway)

One must remember that in 1950, no one had access to the Internet or to Amazon, so if one wished to purchase a book, one had to walk into a shop … in person.  Indeed, unless one entered a bookshop in the flesh, one would not even know which new volumes had recently appeared in print.  And so, Karnac Books became not only a psychoanalytical shop but, also, an unparalleled research centre.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Karnac devoted more and more shelf space to psychoanalytical texts, and soon the books occupied an entire floor of the shop.  He also developed a flourishing international mail-order service, shipping books to practitioners overseas.  In doing so, Harry Karnac played an incalculable role in helping to educate mental health professionals worldwide by providing them with essential reading material in a field still regarded by many with suspicion.

Winnicott, the great child psychoanalyst

Winnicott, “the great child psychoanalyst”

Gradually, Harry Karnac became increasingly immersed in the world of psychoanalysis, not only professionally but also personally.  He had become, without doubt, the premier seller of psychoanalytical books; and furthermore, he had developed a warm acquaintanceship with many of the leading figures in the field, most especially with Donald Winnicott.  Often, the great child psychoanalyst would pop into Karnac’s bookshop on a Saturday morning, as he lived not too far away in Belgravia, also in southwest London, and the two men would chat for many hours.  Harry told me that from time to time, Mrs Clare Winnicott, Donald’s second wife, would ring up the shop and ask Harry to send her husband back home!  I once asked Harry Karnac what sort of books Donald Winnicott purchased from Gloucester Road.  Apparently, he rarely bought psychoanalytical books, preferring general biographies instead; indeed, each week, Winnicott would return to buy another slew of biographies.  When Karnac asked Winnicott how he could plough through so many biographies so quickly, Winnicott laughed and confessed that he read only the first chapter of any biography – the one devoted to early childhood – explaining to Karnac that by the second chapter, after the subject of the biography had grown up, he lost interest!  This seems a most fitting confession from an experienced paediatrician and psychoanalyst.

Masud Khan, age 46, at his house in Knightsbridge, London

Masud Khan at his house in Knightsbridge, London

Harry Karnac also embarked upon his own personal psychoanalytical treatment with Masud Khan.  I believe that Harry found his analysis a useful experience, though like many who ultimately had to witness Khan’s later deterioration into alcoholism, violence, and ill health, Harry lamented that none of Khan’s professional colleagues could save this once distinguished psychoanalyst.  In later years, Khan frequently came into the shop and took books aplenty, and apparently Harry never charged him.

By the 1970s, Karnac Books had become a veritable “mecca” for clinical practitioners of every shape and variety, and the business continued to flourish.  Round about 1977, Harry created the Maresfield Reprints series, orchestrating the re-publication of long-out-of-print classic psychoanalytical titles by such foundational authors as Karl Abraham, Sándor Ferenczi, and Ernest Jones.  The Maresfield Reprints gave Harry Karnac invaluable experience as a publisher, thus extending his expertise beyond the already preoccupying realm of bookselling.  Eventually, Harry launched his own very modest publication arm, which débuted, quite appropriately, with the release of the British edition of Boundary and Space:  An Introduction to the Work of D.W. Winnicott, written by Mrs Madeleine Davis, a longstanding member of the Winnicott Publications Committee, in collaboration with Dr David Wallbridge, an Independent Group psychoanalyst.  The American firm of Brunner / Mazel, Publishers, in New York City, had produced the American edition of this book, and Harry Karnac released the British version.  This important text – the first, and still one of the best, expository works on Winnicott – became a popular and serious introduction to Winnicott’s ideas, and would remain a locus classicus until the appearance of Adam Phillips’s (1988) arguably more evocative book on Winnicott, released some seven years later.

0946439052  anxiety-neurosis-charles-rycroft-paperback-cover-art   Maresfield Reprints

Karnac Books – launched as “H. Karnac (Books)” – has continued to produce psychoanalytical books since 1981.  And to this day, it has published well over one thousand two hundred psychological titles.

Zur Psychoanalyse der Kriegsneurosen (International Psychoanalytical Press, 1919 to 1938)

Zur Psychoanalyse der Kriegsneurosen (International Psychoanalytical Press)

Of course, Harry Karnac invented neither psychoanalytical publishing, nor even psychoanalytical bookselling.  Pioneering publishers such as Franz Deuticke and Hugo Heller had disseminated the work of Sigmund Freud since 1899.  But, egged on by his British disciple Dr Ernest Jones, Freud eventually founded his own imprint, the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, which offered him greater control of, and profit from, the sale of his swelling corpus of psychoanalytical writings.  Freud inaugurated his new publishing firm with a prescient book on the psychoanalytical treatment of war neuroses, entitled Zur Psychoanalyse der Kriegsneurosen (Freud, Ferenczi, Abraham, Simmel, and Jones, 1919), for which Freud (1919) himself wrote an introduction.  Also, at roughly the same time, Jones founded an English publishing concern, the International Psycho-Analytical Press, and he engaged his amanuensis Eric Hiller as the manager of a special psychoanalytical bookshop in Weymouth Street, in Central London.  Alas, according to Jones, this sales outlet “hardly lasted a year”.

But whereas many of the early psychoanalytical publishers in Austria, Germany, and Great Britain have long since disappeared (or, like Basic Books of New York, have diversified and transmuted themselves into generalist publishers), Karnac Books has survived triumphantly as a psychological press, and has now succeeded in spanning two centuries!

I shall never forget my very first visit to the bookshop on Gloucester Road in either late 1982 or early 1983.  A young student at the time, I had seen advertisements for the shop in many different journals, and I could not wait to visit in person, eager to enrich my growing collection of psychological books.  I walked into the shop, which I found, to my surprise, completely deserted, with not even a salesperson behind the till.  As I scoured the many bays of shelves, I saw endless volumes on cookery, gardening, sports, and literature, but nothing – absolutely nothing – on psychoanalysis.  Concerned that I might have erred, and that I had entered the wrong building, my eyes suddenly glanced towards the very back of the shop, and there, perched on a high shelf, occluded in darkness, I spied a bust of Sigmund Freud.  I walked towards this plaster cast reproduction sculpture – undoubtedly the famous work by Oscar Nemon – and there, hanging from a railing beneath Freud’s head, I saw an old, dusty, dark velvet curtain.  With some timidity, I walked through the curtain, padded down a dimly lit, narrow, creaking staircase, and then, to my amazement, I entered a brightly lit basement room, full of nothing but books on psychoanalysis!  Like a little child in a sweet shop, I felt as though I had stumbled upon Ali Baba’s hidden cave, crammed with secret treasures.  With literally no other customers in the shop, I soaked up the quiet atmosphere in this windowless, noiseless room with reverence, and began to scan the multi-coloured spines of the many titles which lined every bit of wall space.

Bust of Freud by Oscar Nemon

Bust of Freud by Oscar Nemon

Eventually, an elderly bespectacled man with white hair and a salt-and-pepper beard and moustache appeared, as if from nowhere, and introduced himself to me as the proprietor.  When I told him that I had recently begun my postgraduate studies, Mr Karnac took a benevolent interest in my reading.  I had already selected a few titles for purchase, and he objected to every one of them.  I remember that I had chosen a particular book about schizophrenia, as I had only just begun to work with psychotic patients at the time.  Harry ridiculed this work, written by a prominent American psychoanalyst, and told me he did not rate it in the least, and insisted that I should purchase, instead, Dr David Malan’s (1979) best-selling book on Individual Psychotherapy and the Science of Psychodynamics!  Whether Harry took such an interventionist approach with all of his customers, I really cannot say, but I certainly appreciated the tip.

Undoubtedly, the friendly atmosphere at Gloucester Road, and later at Finchley Road, stoked many a bibliophile’s passion, so much so that I have often remarked that Harry had unwittingly caused many of us to develop a new form of psychopathology, which I have dubbed, affectionately, “Karnacitis” – a highly incurable condition!

Whenever I came to visit the shop, Harry always greeted me cordially, ever happy to recommend his favourite new titles.  And when, some years later, I embarked upon research for a biography of Donald Winnicott (which would eventually be published by Karnac Books, although I could not possibly have suspected this at the time), Harry helped me tremendously.  Not only did he grant me a lengthy formal interview in which he shared his many reminiscences of Winnicott but, also, he gave me a pre-publication copy of his indispensable Winnicott bibliography which proved invaluable to my work; moreover, Harry even read a draft manuscript of the entire book, for which I shall remain deeply grateful.  Thereafter, he never failed to share further recollections of Winnicott and his circle as they popped into his head.  And over the years, I would frequently find a message on my answering machine:  “Brett, it’s Harry Karnac.  I’ve just remembered another story about Winnicott … Call me!”  Of course, I would always ring back straight away, and I must say that Harry – a great raconteur – never disappointed, invariably recalling something both pertinent and enlightening.

Dr Linda Hopkins

Dr Linda Hopkins, author of ‘False Self: The Life of Masud Khan

I know that other scholars have benefited from Harry’s generosity in this respect, in particular, the American psychoanalyst Dr Linda Hopkins, who developed a great friendship with Harry and with his wife, Ruth Karnac, while writing her exemplary biography of Masud Khan.  I know that Harry treasured her many research trips to England, and enjoyed the fact that she remained a good friend long after the publication of her book.

After his retirement from Karnac Books in 1984, Harry served as a consultant to the company.  He also used his later years most creatively, working for quite some time at the Portman Clinic in London – a National Health Service facility dedicated to the psychoanalytical treatment of patients who commit offences – helping to sort out its voluminous archive of old case notes.

Contemporaneously, Harry devoted himself to the completion of a very detailed bibliography of Winnicott’s writings, a project which he had actually begun in the 1960s.  Harry executed this task most assiduously, publishing an early version in 1993 under the title D.W. Winnicott:  A Chronological and Alphabetical Bibliography, which he printed privately.  Over the next several years, he kept updating the bibliography, which appeared as an appendix in several Winnicott-related tomes.  Eventually, Karnac produced a remarkable bibliography of the many books, articles, and reviews devoted to the life and work of Winnicott, written by scholars from all around the world.  Not at all fearful of newfangled technology, Harry mastered the art of email, and he engaged in a prodigious correspondence with numerous Winnicottian authors, asking each of us for complete listings of everything that we had ever written about Winnicott, or which might have been influenced byWinnicott.  Harry’s 41azCrYeB9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_scholarly text, After Winnicott:  Compilation of Works Based on the Life, Work and Ideas of D.W. Winnicott – some two hundred forty-one pages in length – appeared in 2007, under the imprint of Karnac Books (Karnac, 2007).

Harry soon became the king of bibliographers, and in 2008, he published a comparable reference volume containing details of every book and essay written by Dr Wilfred Bion, as well as listings of numerous studies about Bion penned by other authors.  Bion’s Legacy: Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources of the Life, Work and Ideas of Wilfred Ruprecht Bion (Karnac, 2008), also published by Karnac Books, remains an indispensable tool for clinicians and scholars alike.

Extraordinarily, in his ninetieth year, Harry Karnac (2009) crowned his publishing activities with one final book, Melanie Klein and Beyond:  A Bibliography of Primary and Second Sources, which appeared in 2009, also bearing the eponymous Karnac label on the title page.  Serious researchers will long cherish all three of Harry’s bibliographies, as each contains numerous entries which one cannot necessarily find on the traditional electronic search engines.

Clearly, Harry had used his old age well.  Certainly, few other retirees would have had the capacity to remain so intellectually engaged and so fertile into their tenth decade of life!

After sixty-four years of continuous operation, Karnac Books has become the world’s premier psychoanalytical and psychotherapeutic bookseller and publisher.  Those who followed Harry as owner, firstly Cesare Sacerdoti, then Dr. Judith Feher-Gurewich and Dr. Michael Moskowitz, and more ultimately, Oliver Rathbone, the longstanding, incumbent Managing Director and Publisher, have each made enormous and original contributions to the expansion of Karnac Books.  But all would acknowledge that without the pioneering work of Harry Karnac, the flourishing world of psychoanalytical books might not exist, and if it did, it would certainly be much impoverished.

A profession cannot thrive without its books.  They represent the very lifeblood of progress.  And the modern psychological profession owes its very pulse to the vision and the bravery of Harry Karnac for having had the foresight to embrace an area of work which evoked tremendous suspicions during the post-World War II era.  A very splendid man, with a big heart and an infectious sense of humour, Harry Karnac will be much missed.


Copyright © 2014, by Brett Kahr. Please do not quote without the permission of the author.



I wish to express my kind thanks to Orit Badouk Epstein for her encouraging remarks, and to Kate White, the Editor of Attachment:  New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, for her characteristically helpful recommendations.  I also want to extend my thanks to Alex Massey and Oliver Rathbone of Karnac Books for sharing some additional information.  Dr Ernst Falzeder and Dr Linda Hopkins provided helpful comments, for which I offer my gratitude.

One thought on “Harry Karnac

  1. Thank you Brett Kahr for this tribute to a man i only knew by name alone. how interesting and crucial to witness one person’s determination,good humour and helpfulness ,the shop is a little gem!
    Phil Luffman Group analyst

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s