His father was killed in World War I, and his mother struggled to support the family, working as a bookbinder. Barthes did well in school and wanted to be a professor of literature and philosophy, but he came down with tuberculosis as a young man. Because of his frequent relapses, and the periods of time he had to spend in sanatoriums, he couldn’t hold down a teaching job.
So instead of writing long books about great works of literature, he began to support himself by writing short essays about popular culture. He was one of the first literary critics to apply sophisticated literary theory to things like movies, stripteases, toys, and wrestling matches. He said, “I have tried to be as eclectic as I possibly can with my professional life, and […] it’s been pretty fun.”
He greatly expanded the scope of cultural studies, and it is partially thanks to him that college students can now take classes on subjects like Bugs Bunny. His essays are collected in books such as Mythologies (1957) and Empire of Signs (1970).