Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Pound of Paper by John Baxter

I think I owned this book before the flood, and didn't read it. (My personal flood, in 2011, I mean, not the Biblical one. I'm pretty sure I didn't own any books before the Biblical flood.) The US cover is familiar, once I googled it to start preparing to write this post -- what I read, somewhat appropriately for a book about books, was the UK first edition.

As far as I can tell, I never read that first copy of A Pound of Paper: the words here, and the story of John Baxter's life told in those words, were new to me. So it's another one of those odd fragments of a reading life: the book that's partly familiar and partly unfamiliar, and you can't quite remember why. Sometimes those are books you almost read -- poked through in a store, glanced at during a boring party. Some are just books you heard about a lot -- read a few reviews and got enough knowledge that ten years later it feels like you forgot the rest. And some are like this: books you never did read, but had around for a while and probably picked up several times.

A Pound of Paper is somewhere between a general memoir of Baxter's life and an examination of the world of bookselling and his life in that world in the '60s through the '90s. It was published in 2002, and was Baxter's first foray into memoir, though it was followed not long after by the more specific We'll Always Have Paris, largely about how he married a Frenchwoman in midlife and moved to Paris. (That story, in miniature, is told here, with the focus mostly on how French bookdealers, like all French shopkeepers, are more like friendly neighbors than commerce-driven capitalists, and that causes friction with folks used to the norms of the Anglosphere.)

This book meanders quite a bit -- it's organized more or less chronologically, but Baxter backtracks a lot and drops what seem to be major threads (like the whole I-bought-and-sold-books thing) for entire chapters at a time. For example, he opens with three chapters talking about bookselling, booksellers, and the world of first editions -- the profitable end of bookselling, then as always. But that then drops away for a more normal autobiography of his childhood for the next few chapters -- with notes on the books he read, some of which he notes he still owns -- and how he entered the literary world in general. He seems to want this to be the Sam Eagle of autobiographies, a salute to everything in his life but mostly bookselling.

He was born in Australia in 1939, grew up largely in a town way out in the middle of nowhere, with stints in Sydney before and after that. He left school in his mid-teens to work on the railroad -- apparently still a thing one could do in Australia in the '50s -- and meandered into literary society through Australian SF clubs.

(I'm amused that Baxter was a SF writer and anthologist -- had a novel published by Ace in the '60s and everything -- but I didn't discover his work through that connection, but because I randomly picked up I think, this book, and then slightly later read We'll Always Have Paris because it was partially about the grande horizontales of his new hometown. And from there I wandered over to his "encyclopedia of modern sex" Carnal Knowledge and a biography of J.G. Ballard called The Inner Man.)

From there, Pound of Paper stints on Baxter's literary career -- Wikipedia lists a bunch of publications in the '60s and '70s, novels and books about film, but Baxter doesn't mention any of them -- to talk about buying books instead of writing them. Again, it's pretty meandering, much like Baxter's life: he moved to London in the late '50s (I think), and there became the kind of guy who finds rare-ish books and resells them, which led to being something like a partner of the bookseller Martin Stone -- Baxter talks about deals rather than business arrangements, and I think that was the level of everything. He never had a storefront or a business entity; he just found books, collected books, and sometimes sold books, either individually or in job lots. From London, he moved to Los Angeles for a decade or two, when his career was mostly writing books about film, and then moved on to Paris for the aforementioned Parisian.

Baxter has not organized all of this terribly well, but he tells it well. It feels like a loose bag of party pieces -- "Have I told you about how I came to London and met Martin? Well, there's a tale..." -- spruced up and put into a plausible order than something actually conceived as a book-length manuscript to begin with. I've read better books about bookselling, certainly, but this is a fun and interesting one, and the bookselling stuff is mixed in with the general story of a life spent in the literary world, which is a nice combination. 

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