He has, in short, never stopped learning, however many kicks he might have got to the ankles along the way, particularly through decades of politics where his giant brain never quite made up for the lack of a killer instinct.
The Dictionary of World Biography, he says, is his magnum opus: the most important and best work a writer might produce.
“It demonstrates my preoccupation, even obsession, about making sense of the world to myself and sharing those insights with others,” he writes in the foreword.
This latest edition – the 7th published by the ANU Press – is monumental: 910,000 words covering the equivalent of 940 full pages of text, ranging over more than more than 8500 entries (and perfectly impossible to cover in any meaningful way in a column of this length).
Unsurprisingly for a man in love with words and the meanings they can convey, the single longest entry – “Shakespeare, William” – runs to 2386 words, with 56 cross-references.
But don’t imagine this is the last word.
Jones, at least metaphorically, still drags his little red cart behind him, revising his work, adding new entries, thinking about those already there and working out new ways of understanding significant lives. Every year there is an update.
If there were medals for scholastic stamina, Jones would be a strong contender for gold.
He was a young teacher at Dandenong High School when, more than 60 years ago, he began devoting his increasingly rare spare time to writing a book about those he considered the most noteworthy people in world history.
Typing furiously on his old Olivetti, he had his first draft completed by May 5, 1959.
He was just 26. His work ran to about 430,000 words typed on 837 foolscap pages. It included 6000 biographies. He still has three bound copies of that first draft.
From there, the work grew in both physical size and intellectual scope, and Jones has no plans to sign it off. He will be 88 in October.
Around the age of 15, he read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where he found words that transfixed him.
“I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for,” says the middle brother, Ivan.
“They drive me on, pursuing the how and why questions,” says Jones of these words. “As I get nearer the end, the sense of urgency of trying to work out what it’s all about is even greater.”
Right now, Jones is almost lost for words at the Morrison government’s decision to double the cost of an arts degree to drive students to more “practical” courses.
He holds the humanities – subjects like literature, philosophy, art and history – to be key to the search for human meaning.
Jones has had some personal experience with bias against the arts.
His family could not afford to send him to university, but he won a scholarship established by a Melbourne businessman, Dafydd Lewis.
Lewis, says Jones, “thought arts graduates were useless”. His scholarship would not cover the study of arts, theology, music or education.
Jones chose law, but managed to squeeze arts subjects into his degree at Melbourne University, which led to a job as a history teacher. Later he returned to study for a masters degree in the arts, majoring in history.
Public intellectual, quiz king, lawyer, academic and long-time politician, Jones has spent his life absorbed in the love of history, music, literature, sculpture, painting, philosophy and ethics: giving the lie to any idea that the humanities are useless.
He has travelled just about everywhere, has one of the great collections of autographs and was among the nation’s leading activists against the death penalty.
He was science minister in the Hawke government from 1983 to 1990, and alerted those who would listen to the coming challenges of climate change before almost any other Australian public figure. Science, he says, is not just about physical things: it is evidence-based knowledge about the world.
And yet this man of knowledge is capable of being moved to such transcendental rapture by the magnificence of, say, Winchester Cathedral, or the glory of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor, performed on Jones’ 60th birthday in St Gangolf’s Church in the ancient German city of Trier, that he confesses to experiencing bouts of Stendhal Syndrome, during which the afflicted – or perhaps blessed – suffer symptoms from dizziness to heart palpitations.
You’d hope that Barry Jones, man of the humanities, will live long.
Barry Jones’ Dictionary of World Biography is published by the Australian National University Press (Download for free at press.anu.edu.au or $90 in printed form).
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.