John Baxter, A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003)

I've become quite fond of the recent flood of books about books, specifically books about book collecting and the characters who engage in this rare and costly pasttime. Beginning with Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel The Club Dumas (which was adapted into the film The Ninth Gate), I researched more information about the necessities involved in such a pursuit and the type of person best suited for it. I've since read the adventures of husband and wife Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, the wide-ranging (and long-winded) works of Nicholas Basbanes, and I've especially enjoyed the Cliff Janeway series of bibliomysteries written by John Dunning — read first for the story, and then reread for the wealth of information gleaned from Dunning's own experience as an antiquarian bookseller. Now celebrity biographer John Baxter has added his own insight to this subgenre with A Pound of Paper.

Baxter describes his childhood growing up in rural Australia, a land where, he says, the exchange "should we buy them a book? No, they already have one" was still in wide use. When he became interested in science-fiction, he was relegated to rummaging through a neighbor's garage to find old copies of fiction magazines in order to get any reading material since the natives didn't write much at all, and certainly not that. (There have been recent attempts to remedy this through such works as Dreaming Down-Under.) However, once he became a collector, it was apparently very easy to obtain the available material, since he was only competing with one other person.

The author's prose is light and easy to read, making it a joy to follow along as he tells his story. Unfortunately, a good portion of A Pound of Paper is mere autobiography hardly worthy of the sensational subtitle "confessions of a book addict." No Trainspotting-level scenes of literary abandon here. Baxter does make a point, however, to steer his digressions back to the main road; they often involve events happening inbetween searches for books, or events that led him to discover a particularly choice find. Luckily, Baxter has a terrific sense of humor. This puts the eccentric behaviors of himself and all the book lovers he meets in his intercontinental travels (including the seemingly ubiquitous Martin Stone, the name most often dropped by people writing these books) in perspective. The main thread is his explanation of how a love of author Graham Greene's works led to the discovery of a rare Greene children's book (The Little Horse Bus) for five pence among a box of junk and led him on to the world of collecting. That central story, along with his advice of where best to find unexpected treasures — and how to properly converse with a French bouquiniste — are alone worth the effort of this hefty work.

So, although A Pound of Paper isn't the best book I've read on the subject, it is dependably entertaining. This includes Baxter's additions at the end. Following the main text are appendices, including lists of important books; answers to the "if your house were burning" question posed to such personalities as Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Kim Newman; and a hysterical selection of descriptions culled from eBay book auctions that, somehow, withstand several rereadings. This final section is a real bonus because a good laugh — even at someone else's expense (some would say "especially") — is a pleasure too few writers offer. Baxter, with his Pound of Paper, is up to the challenge.

[Craig Clarke]