When it comes to the world of books and reading, there are usually two kinds of people. The one is involved only with the act of reading. Once read, a book is quite worthless, as it is to one of my neighbors, an avid reader: “Why hold on to it,” she says, “it’s not like I am going to read it again.” The second kind is a collector, a hoarder of books. One of my friends, for example, reads all his books borrowed from the public library. Afterwards, if he really likes it, he will buy a copy of the book for keeps. In his memoir A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict, film biographer and critic John Baxter relates to this book-collecting hobby in the extreme.
As a boy growing up in small-town Junee in Australia, Baxter confesses to not having many books around. His love for books was fueled by the meager collection of routine whodunits by Agatha Christie and other popular fiction at the local “Railway Institute Library.” Baxter started his collecting mania with tomes of cheap science fiction, probably because it was one genre that was not easy to exhaust. Later, when his job with the Railways in Australia took him to the most remote of places, it was Baxter’s passion for books (and for the collecting of them) that kept him “sane". “Collecting books became my life—or, if you like, a substitute for one,” says Baxter. “Difficult to explain the pleasure of the Saturdays spent, often on hands and knees, ferreting in [those] dusty shops, in the cavernous Edwardian brick barn of Paddy’s market, or in Ashwood’s, a book and record shop with a turnover so torrential that its stock seemed to renew itself every day.” Baxter relates his early years in Australia hilariously, and there are times when the accounts make one squeal aloud in laughter.
Soon enough, Baxter decides he is tired of “office life” and moves to new locales -- Hollywood and England -- to test his fortunes. It is on one of his many visits to a local flea market in London that Baxter meets legendary book dealer Martin Stone. Stone further stoked the collecting bug in an already stricken Baxter; Baxter’s first serious foray into collecting began with his tracking down works by Graham Greene. It was not enough to simply own one of Greene’s books. As Baxter himself relates, the value of a book increases tremendously if it meets certain qualifications: first edition, dust jacket intact, author’s signature inscribed on its pages.
Baxter also recounts his transition from collector to dealer, yet his collecting hobby still remains. Eventually Baxter moves to Paris to be with his wife and makes his career there. Along the way in his witty memoir, Baxter makes many pointed asides about some losses in the book industry. He comments about the use of bookplates and about how they are often not “emblematic, consonant with the book in which it appears.”
The biggest loss, of course, is the selling out of smaller used bookstores to giant online ones such as Alibris. The joy of the find, the thrill of finding a treasure in the most unexpected of places, is lost to a considerable extent with the advent of online selling and bidding. “Suddenly, the old back-street bookseller in the ash-stained cardigan began to look less like a Neanderthal and more like a subject for Norman Rockwell,” says Baxter. At the same time, he is ultimately hopeful: “As long as we can get down on our knees in the dirt of a parking lot and rummage, even if that parking lot is electronic, we won’t have lost that sense of delight in collecting,” says Baxter, “the conviction that anything can be anywhere.”
A Pound of Paper is a wonderful treat for booklovers everywhere. In vicariously tasting the thrills that accompany the ferreting out of a book treasure, booklovers and collectors will gladly refute Baxter’s statement in his memoir: Books have no sex appeal. Far from it. For a booklover, nothing can be sexier. In Baxter we have a comrade, a friend who reminds us that we are not alone in our unending love affair with the written word. As the frontispiece quote in the book tells us, “Outside a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.”