London/New York: Doubleday, 417pp, 15 pounds/$45 Australian. ISBN 0385 603681
John Baxter’s delightful A Pound of Paper is a combination of autobiography and exposition of bibliomania. Baxter has had a fascinating life from his youth in a remote small town in New South Wales, Australia to his current upper level apartments near Boulevard St. Germain in Paris. His career has ranged from being a relief railway clerk, to established biographer of movie stars and directors, such as Kubrick and Spielberg, and regular television and radio commentator.
Throughout this period, he has been an avid buyer and seller of books. Baxter’s early collecting, which began with the purchase of The Poems of Rupert Brooke when he was eleven, was largely in the science fiction field. Kingsley Amis, who features in a marvel lous vignette in the book, once said that lonely teenagers in the 1950s often succumbed to science fiction and jazz. Baxter then stumbled into the world of SF fandom in Sydney. He subsequently accumulated one of the best science fiction collections in Australia (and, yes, there was more than one!).
Baxter, when he was in Sydney, soon gave up his job and moved in slightly seedy circles, including involvement with a fledgling pornographic film maker. Baxter’s biographical interludes closely resemble those of Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs, which roughly covered Sydney at the same period, although James was more involved with the Sydney University bohemian set of Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer.
Baxter’s biography is subsequently based around his moves from Australia to the UK and back again and his book collecting. He focuses initially on his collecting of Graham Greene material, which was ultimately sold in Swann Galleries in New York in 1982. But as one collection disappears, as bibliomaniacs know, another takes its place. Baxter’s move to Paris in 1990 has seen him collecting expatriate writers of the 1920s and 1930s, a move perhaps inspired by his physical proximity to the flat of the legendary Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Company.
Baxter was often a “runner” as well as a buyer, so that he is particularly knowledgeable as to market values, including the dotcom type idiosyncracies of the modern first edition market. An article in the UK Financial Times of 6 December 2002 quoted Peter Kraus of Manhattan’s Ursus Bookshop stating that “the Harry Potters, Tolkiens and Ian Flemings are now going off into the realms of Hemingway and Joyce and prices are being inflated to the point of irrationality … Modern first editions are in a tremendous bubble at the moment, which I don’t think is sustainable”.
Baxter’s own book has already sold out in the first edition and nearly doubled its purchase price. Baxter places particular emphasis on the acquisition of signed material, which he was able to increase during his time as a radio interviewer. Being Australian, he said, meant that he had no inhibitions in London asking his interviewees to sign books! His meetings with Kingsley Amis were facilitated by the purchasing of whisky. Perhaps as a result of this lubrication, Amis gave Baxter a signed, annotated proof copy of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, which Baxter now believes is worth more than three thousand pounds.
A Pound of Paper is dedicated to Martin Stone, a former rock musician, fugitive from justice, drug addict and book runner extraordinaire. He flits across Baxter’s pages as an almost Gollum-like character. Baxter’s pen portraits of the 1980s “book-runners” range from the now noted novelist Iain Sinclair to the idiosyncratic book dealer Driff Field. Early descriptions of now established booksellers range from Rick Gekoski in UK to Nicholas Pounder in Australia, while later references include such notables as Simon Finch, Ralph Sipper and Larry McMurtry.
Baxter has much less involvement with the traditional firms such as Quaritch, Bertram Rota or Maggs; the last he refers to as “suppliers of books to the Gentry and the Royal Family”. Subsequently, however, he admits, “many treasures aren’t found in skips and thrift shops but on the shelves of specialists”. Nonetheless, Baxter, one feels, is more at home with the lure of the chase which takes him from the North London alley book stalls and fleamarkets to musty warehouses. Throughout this, the love of the chase, the love of discovery is paramount and is even more attractive if lots of money can be made.
Baxter is particularly harsh on Librarians, although without libraries he could not have done much of his childhood reading or later research. He says “most Librarians don’t like books anymore than butchers like pork chops”. One hopes that most of Baxter’s antipathy to Librarians is because for a collector, nothing is worse in a bookseller’s catalogue or stock than the “ex library copy” with its date stamps, discarded or glued dust wrappers. Baxter says in a recent interview: “Restoring a library book to collectable condition is like trying to return Kentucky Fried Chicken to the state of health where it can lay an egg”. In the same interview he says he hates libraries because “they are like mausoleums”. He clearly hasn’t visited some of the wonderful information centres-cumlibraries, like the University of Queensland and the University of Calgary, where students can be found working in most attractive contemporary settings including coffee shops and restaurants.
Baxter’s appendix is entitled “If your house was on fire”, i.e. what books would you take in the case of your house burning down. (Until the recent horrible bushfires in Canberra, Australia, in January 2003 I had thought this to be an academic question.) Ray Bradbury said that he would take a copy of George Bernard Shaw’s Prefaces (London, 1934). Baxter in a recent interview has said that he would have taken the limited signed 1953 edition of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, bound in a form of asbestos and now allegedly worth $55,000 US.
A Pound of Paper is beautifully produced although the pressed flower image on the flyleaf was not Baxter’s idea. He would have preferred a dust jacket photograph of a beautiful woman lying naked, covered in books and had arranged for a photo to be taken ,but his publishers wanted something “more baroque”. Whether the ultimate result is baroque or not is questionable. What is not questionable is the spirit, verve and bibliophilic life that imbues A Pound of Paper. Long may Baxter continue to collect!