Time for a little non-fiction, and in the light of all the muttering here about philia and mania, it seems somehow quite apt that I should read this, a book about an obsession with books!

I read Baxter’s lovely book about Paris recently, and so stumbling across this volume (a Book People “Ted Smart” hardback from 2002) in the Charity Shop recently was a piece of luck. The subtitle is “Confessions of a Book Addict”, which is quite appropriate, although the book is a little more wide-ranging that you might expect. John Baxter hails from Australia, and spent many of his formative years living in the back of beyond, with his only access to books a small local library – which he systematically read his way through. He traces the origins of his addiction to the purchase of a collection of Rupert Brooke poems, the first book of his own, and goes on to trace his life in books – from living and working in Sydney, where he discovers science fiction (a lot of it pulp!) and hangs out with other collectors; via London, where he makes a living buying and selling books, as well as writing as a film critic, and meets such notable book runners as Martin Stone; then on to Los Angeles, where the book market is very different; and finally ending up in Paris, where buying and selling literature has a very different complexion.

Along the way he encounters authors and collectors, porn stars, actors, critics, Los Angeles crazies, London crazies, and a lot of people who are keen on books! His meetings with Kingsley Amis are fascinating, and Baxter has a wonderful collection of Graham Greene books which make you, well, green with envy. And he considers the way book selling and collecting have changed, particularly in the light of the Internet and the fledgling eBay. The book is over 10 years old now, and I think things have changed even more…

I enjoyed reading Baxter’s tales very much, but I have to say that his book also set me thinking a lot, particularly following my recent musings. There were pivotal points where I started to perceive a difference in book collectors and book lovers. Baxter *sells* his wonderful Greene collection, which is quite a shock. And I started to recognise that in fact the descriptions in the book were of a general collecting mentality – it didn’t have to be books, it could have been any items, and the thrill was in the chase, the search for the elusive rarity. Not that I’m saying Baxter doesn’t love his books – but he states of his first book, the Brooke:

“The book was of no practical use – it existed solely as a treasureable object.”

And then I thought of his earlier statement:

“Almost all collectors are male. A few women collect, but in an entirely different way from men.”

I know quite a few female collectors – most notably of Virago books – and we collect these to *read* them. Yes, we also collect them as objects, beautiful volumes in their own right. But I have turned down Viragos when I think I won’t read them. The books I personally collect are for the content within them, the stories they tell, the pictures they paint and the places they take me. This was thrown into sharp focus in the sections of the book dealing with signed copies. I have very few of these – in fact, off the top of my head I can think of a few: an ordinary paperback copy of Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”, signed by the author at a film showing and talk I attended many years ago; a volume of Patti Smith’s lyrics which a dear friend in New York asked her to inscribe for me; and “Umbrella” by Will Self, which Middle Child got signed at a talk she attended.


So when Liz at Libro so kindly sent me a copy of a Beverley Nichols book she just happened to have on her stacks, “The Sweet and Twenties”, and it turned out to be signed, I was excited simply because it means that Beverley once handled the book. I want to *read* the book, as I do all those in my collection, and so maybe this is where the difference lies – I won’t wrap it up in cotton wool, I shall read it and laugh and enjoy it. Is it a man/woman thing? I don’t know – all I know is that I collect books for content and if they happen to be beautiful or attractive, that’s a bonus…

That’s slightly off topic, I know – but reading Baxter’s book did make me call into question the type of collecting that goes on. I don’t necessarily agree with the divorcing of a book from its content – yes, a book can be an intrinsically lovely object, but at the end of the day it’s a container for words, a way of transporting stories further than you can take them just by passing them on orally. I enjoyed Baxter’s book immensely – he’s always an engaging narrator, and his insights into the book world resonate. Who, after all, if they are past a certain age, doesn’t recognise this description?

“By the early Seventies, anyone asked to evoke a second-hand bookshop would have described a musty establishment on a back street ruled by a Dickensian curmudgeon in a moth-eater cardigan who snorted snuff and mumbled to himself. The books he sold, bound uniformly in brown leather, were obviously destined for some oak-panelled library. And also most certainly he had something to hide.”

I can recall the first second-hand shop I visited, in my early teens, which was very like this – piled high with mouldering old hardbacks, and run by a slightly scary old man. I still have the ancient and battered Sherlock Holmes volumes I bought there, and have read and re-read ever since. But I think I will perhaps be more contemplative about my collection – and perhaps call it my library instead, because that word implies more that the books are there to be read for pleasure and not to accumulate any value. Nevertheless, I do recommend Baxter’s book – a fun and thought-provoking read!


As an aside, Baxter appends some rather interesting lists – Cyril Connolly’s “The Modern Movement” and Anthony Burgess’s “99 Novels” among them. He implies that collectors like the list just so that they can *collect* the list. I am trying to resist the temptation to set myself a challenge to *read* them…. 🙂