- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003


By John Baxter

Thomas Dunne Books, $24.95, 417 pages


To be interested is to be interesting; and the extremity of being interested is obsession. Few people are so happily obsessed as book collectors, a class that includes John Baxter, whose book of memoirs is appropriately focused on his passionate bibliophily. He obviously loves the game, and has accumulated treasures in all the foreign places where he’s lived — Australia, England, France, and even exotic, far-off Los Angeles.

Mr. Baxter began to hear rumblings while he was growing up in Australia, and by the time he reached England (“home” to Aussies), he was lost. Or found, as the case may be. His interests grew and changed, beginning with the signed first editions, holograph materials and ephemera of Graham Greene to the books of Australian artist and writer Norman Lindsay, then on to books of science fiction (“which is not a question of quality but of quantity”) and finally to a “dozen of mini-collections.”

The author is obviously one of those who can hear the music. His English reminiscences of “runners” (hybrid book scouts and dealers) are especially lively. “Running books has always been the refuge of a particular brand of anti-social eccentric,” he tells us, and then provides ample documentation of the fact that they are not only eccentric, but larcenous, improvident, quirky and even homicidal. A runner named Driff Field “announced that he would one day kill himself and have his body cremated on a pyre made of books” (the pyre no doubt consisting of books he hadn’t been able to sell).

One of Mr. Baxter’s special interests is collecting signed copies, and his career as a broadcaster (he’s also a novelist and biographer of movie stars and screen personalities) provides rich opportunities for getting books with personal inscriptions from the writers he interviews. Another advantage in getting them, he says, is “a willingness to fawn”; but I doubt if his groveling is excessive.

He points out that the most pathological, or at least the most avid, collectors tend to be men (women seem to be more rational and disciplined in their approach to collecting); part of this may be due to the competitive aspect of collecting. “It was wonderful to find the books,” he writes, in describing his coming upon some overlooked treasures in a basement in Paris. “It was even better to find them when somebody else had not.”

Mr. Baxter is a prolific reader, which is only proper for a collector; and he is also a vivid and “stylish” writer, as in this reference to the early stages of his bibliomania: “Obscure editions swam through my dreams like women.” It seems that in his youth he was rather shy with girls, but then, “My virginity was given up in a blizzard of flesh.” (A warm blizzard, one hopes.)

Indeed, many have compared the passion for collecting rare books with the love for women (we’re still speaking of men, here), to which thought Mr. Baxter adds his own testimony. “Eroticism is deeply embedded in book collecting”; and yet, he later seems to contradict himself by saying: “Sadly, books in themselves lack sex appeal.” But if books aren’t sexy, a galley proof is their plain sister, for a galley “is the larval stage of a book, and like most larvae, isn’t much to look at.”

Maybe so, but here, as elsewhere, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, especially while beholding a sought-after book. “A Pound of Paper” is an interesting title, but Baxter does not bother to explain it. It could, of course, refer generally to the weight of the average octavo volume; or, since the author is more or less British, it could refer to the pound sterling — rather obliquely, to be sure; and yet, money is the basic measure of value in judging a collector’s “finds.” (“Rarity can be created,” he says, “but not value”; an interesting perception, although I would prefer the word “scarcity” to “rarity” in the equation.)

This is an engrossingly interesting book, and its pleasures will not be limited to book collectors, although any nonbeliever who reads it might well be infected with the bacillus librorum. The major faults I find in it are in its dwelling upon so many really grubby characters and the sorts of books they wallow in, cheap, vulgar ephemera that — partly because of such books as Mr. Baxter’s — often turn out to be not so ephemeral after all.

These decadent sorts are thoughtlessly — though no-doubt fashionably — promiscuous and “into drugs,” as they used to say. But then, my judgment is possibly of limited usefulness, for I am an atavistic prude, and it’s possible that many readers will not find my problem a problem at all. Be that as it may, this is for the most part a delightful book, and it is pleasant to think of its being read for any reason and from any perspective.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

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