John Baxter’s A Pound of Paper (2002)

John Baxter’s Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict
Random House (UK), 2002

Welcome to another bookish Friday. I chose John Baxter’s work for two reasons: first, it was a gift from a bookish friend some years ago and I wanted to take some proper time with it because it has sat neglected for too long and, next, as a perfect read for the Bibliophilic Challenge. I have one more Bibliophilic-Challenge-inspired read planned for next month, which will overtly qualify me as a Litlover (but regular readers won’t expect defending on that score), and more bookish fiction interspersed as well, claiming Fridays past July.

Honestly, when I started reading Pound of Paper I was a tad disappointed and then relieved. Disappointed because I was looking for that immediate sense of connection (like that I had with Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris and Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading); John Baxter begins by discussing the genesis and manifestation of his obsession with Graham Greene’s works and I have relatively little interest in Greene’s works myself.

Relief because he is clearly just as obsessed about what his own bookish obsessions and we are definitely not competing for the same bookish collectibles (although he does explain later that he has many obsessions unlike most female collectors who, in his opinion, are more single-minded about what they collect and how they go about the task).

John Baxter’s book reminded me a little of Stern and Rostenberg’s Old Books, Rare Friends (but without the friendship element, and without the interest in Alcott, which made that particular book such an amazing read for me) for its emphasis on the business of collecting books, some of Nicholas Basbanes writings (on bookselling and the value of the trade and the lengths to which some collectors — some bibliophiles — will go), and it also recalled Larry McMurtry’s Books (for its emphasis on a wider collecting culture and the sustained focus on modern first editions and sales and the sense of a single collector put forth).

The first book that John Baxter bought for himself was The Poems of Rupert Brooke in 1951, when he was eleven years old. He describes it as follows:

“In acquiring it, I exercised a personal taste. Like the appearance of the first pubic hair, at once alarming and exciting, it marked one’s passage into a new state of existence. Nor was it bought to be read. I knew these poems already, and had even memorized a few. The book was of no practical use — it existed solely as a treasurable object.” (47)

The tone of the passage is typical of Pound of Paper: it’s as much a personal odyssey as it is a reflection of John Baxter’s bookishness. Indeed, I am not sure whether his bookishness and mine really has that much in common. But then I would come across something like this and I’d rethink my hesitation:

“Is it unreasonable to talk about pity for books? I don’t think so. Books in quantity and disorder induce in collectors a sort of compassion.” (68)

And then I’d be reminded of just how different my personal experience of bookishness is:

“Until my early twenties, science fiction, book hunting, and the railways occupied all my days. Mine was the social life of the loner — which is to say no social life at all; just a succession of meetings with fellow obsessives on neutral ground, for the playing of chess, the exchange of books, the reinforcement of our treasured detachment. We lived with parents, or alone, and took satisfaction in the way others perceived us as outlandish.” (103)

And then I’d be back to nodding my head vehemently:

“Rather than chasing a specific writer or particular genre, some collectors like to fill a list. It can be all the winners of a particular prize: the Pulitzer or the Booker for literature, the Hugos and Nebulas awarded for science fiction, the crime world’s Edgars and Silver Daggers. Other prefer lists proposed by literary authorities of the best books of a genre or era.” 367 (first of several appendices)

Overall, I mightn’t mind bookhunting with John Baxter (he’d clearly be collecting completely different treasures), but I don’t think we’d have much to say over a coffee after a successful hunt: I didn’t feel a connection to the author, but I do appreciate his passion for books.

Have you read this one? What did you think?
With whom do you most love to bookhunt?



  1. Buried In Print June 23, 2010 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the comments!
    Danielle, I think you’ll quite enjoy the Corrigan memoir, even knowing only a bit about your reading preferences. And I agree that a shared bookhunt has a particular charm.
    Sakura, I have picked them up many times but never followed through: thanks for the recommendation!
    Nathalie, Thanks for linking to your response; it’s true that his passion for books manifests in a way that echoes the conquest tale, which I find hard to relate to as well. If it had been any longer I don’t think I’d have finished it either.

  2. Nathalie June 22, 2010 at 9:49 am - Reply

    I did not like this book, and I found it an odd book about books. Like many of you, Anne Fadiman is my benchmark, and what I love about her writing is that she connects books and her passion for them to something bigger: plagiarism, marriage, re-reading, polar exploration. There is always a lovely surprise in her essays, an intellectual surprise. My problem with Baxter’s book, which I could not finish, was that it was about conquest, and I found the telling dull. I’ve written about Baxter here.

  3. sakura June 21, 2010 at 11:23 am - Reply

    I love books about books and read this about 5 years ago. I recall he was obsessed with Greene wasn’t he? Have you ever read any of John Dunning’s books which are mysteries featuring a bookseller? Best one is Bookman’s Wake. They’re great and you learn a lot about collecting books!

  4. Danielle June 19, 2010 at 10:01 pm - Reply

    This sounds interesting–I don’t read enough books about books, though I loved the Fadiman and have the Corrigan on hand. I’ve no one to bookhunt with me these days. My one friend who loves used bookstores no longer lives close by. I don’t mind going it alone but it’s not quite as much fun.

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