Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press, 2003
Recently published in the U.S. (following the British first edition), A Pound of Paper combines an author’s understanding of the book world with stories from several decades of inspired collecting—a combination bound to keep the stampedes at library and estate sales as lively (and brutal) as ever. John Baxter, an Australian cinema biographer, conjures a cast of richly drawn literary characters from his adventures in the book trade. The portraits of cocaine-addled bookman Martin Stone and novelist Kingsley Amis (who gives Baxter a proof copy of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, with Amis’s own notations) are the best parts of a volume that sometimes lags, though ultimately offers a satisfying take on one collector’s journey into books.
“The whole point of collecting is the thrill of acquisition,” writes Baxter. However, like most book people, his pursuits are driven by his love of reading as much as by his desire to acquire the physical object. We learn his story two ways: via tales of an adolescent love affair with science fiction, and then through an account of his adult infatuation with Graham Greene, a collecting impulse sparked by his London flea market purchase of Greene’s children’s book The Little Horse Bus. “Each step in the collection of a title takes you closer to the author,” writes Baxter, but the idea of finality scares him. As he nears completion of his Greene library, he abruptly auctions it off. Selling it returns Baxter to what he loves best—the hunt—choosing instead authors “less easily exhausted,” such as Edward Gorey and Lafcadio Hearn.
From the escalating importance of dust jackets to the dynamic world of eBay auctions to anthropodermic (human skin) bindings, Baxter is insightful while not getting bogged down on technical information—this is no soup-to-nuts guide. Instead, he illuminates topics with a personal anecdote, explaining, for instance, the history of bookplates while revealing his own efforts to have Expressionist painter Francis Bacon design him one.
This approach works well as long as the reader’s interests parallel Baxter’s. While his stories of modern literary authors are fascinating, his excursions into science fiction will be hard to bear for all but the most dedicated fans. His willingness to share personal opinions and details is also a mixed bag. He hilariously declares that “restoring a library book to collectable condition is like trying to return a Kentucky Fried Chicken to the state of health where it can lay an egg,” but his reminiscences of orgies will leave the reader wondering if A Pound of Paper was shelved in the proper section of the bookstore.
In the end, Baxter’s captivating description of the thrill of the book search is what makes A Pound of Paper an exciting addition to any shelf. Many readers will relate to the sense of anticipation as Baxter prowls high and low for the next piece of his collection, explaining that there are always “more midnight meetings on street corners…more surprises in musty cellars” and more to be “learned about the intricate world of books.”
Doug Diesenhaus is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.