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Recent Reads: A Pound of Paper by John Baxter

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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!

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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…

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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.

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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…. 🙂

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Synchronicity, Serendipity – and *why* can’t I stop buying books!!

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Despite all my wonderful resolutions to read from my stacks and not buy any more books for a while, things are not going to plan – well, they never do with me and books and reading, do they? I have had a couple of volumes arrive via ReadItSwapIt this week, but things complicated a little today when I popped into the Big Town. I hadn’t been round the charity shops much recently owing to Christmas, family illnesses and visiting offspring. However, I was resolved not to do a big sweep, and even popped into the library to return some volumes – and happened to catch sight of a copy of Stella Gibbons’ “Nightingale Wood” for sale – a Virago volume I don’t have and for 40p found impossible to resist….

Nestling next to it in this unpleasantly fuzzy picture (I really must get my camera sorted out!) is a very nice old Penguin of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” – I’ve seen the film many times but never read the book and since I love classic sci-fi so much, I thought it was a must.

The Verne came from the Oxfam book shop, which has unfortunately had a bit of a re-stock in its Modern Classics and Classics section – so I had to exert quite a lot of will-power not to come out with a bag full of books. However, I *did* make an exception for “A Pound of Paper” – written by John Baxter, whose “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World” I just read and reviewed, and subtitled “Confessions of a Book Addict”. Maybe it will have some advice to help me deal with *my* addiction?

Today’s last acquisition “All Saints Eve” is a collection of stories billed as the precursor to Agatha Christie – and I confess to never having heard of or read Amelia B. Edwards, but for £1.75 I’m prepared to take a punt. This last book came from the lovely Samaritans book cave, where I dropped in for a browse and chat with the friendly staff.

Unfortunately, all this has messed with the plans for reading and the little shelf of books I notionally had put aside for current reading. I’ve already gone off at a bit of a tangent, as there are a couple of books I just read awaiting review which weren’t planned for, and I’m now 100 pages into this:

I picked up “Life: A User’s Manual” last year at the Oxfam and decided I needed something unusual and substantial recently – so far it fits the bill admirably!

So, now the current pile of possibles looks like this:

Top is the Perec I’m currently reading. Then we have today’s acquisitions, followed by MacLaren-Ross’s “Of Love and Hunger”, “The Leopard”, Compton Mackenzie’s “Sinister Street”, Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” (I’m thinking of a readalong with jackiemania), “Manon Lescaut” (RISI) and Chekhov’s “The Russian Master” (RISI). Phew!

I really must try to concentrate on one book at a time… :s

Recent Reads – The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter

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The lovely thing about time off work (in this case for the Christmas holidays) is that I get plenty of reading time – fairly essential when you think of the number of books I’ve amassed recently, and so maybe it’s a good thing this is another gift book (birthday this time).

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It’s a little while since I’ve read any non-fiction and I was unsure what I wanted to read, so I picked up TMBWITW – and I wasn’t disappointed! John Baxter has written a number of books, but this is the first time I’ve come across his work. He hails originally from Australia but washed up in Paris via England and LA when he married a Frenchwoman and moved there. The book is the story of his walking experiences in the city, and an awful lot more!

Baxter begins by relating a driving experience gone wrong, when he was supposed to be travelling to in-laws for Christmas Day outside of Paris. He soon diverges into his history as a walker (you didn’t in Australia because of wild creatures, you did in UK to get to the pub, and if you walked in LA *you* were regarded as a wild creature!) However, he doesn’t stay directly on topic for long, and his book wanders off, in psychogeographical fashion, to cover the artistic past of Paris, his adventures taking walking guided tours round the city, food and drink, the building of modern Paris, visiting the catacombs, opium, cafes, clubs and much, much more! The US ex-pat community of Stein, Fitzgerald and very much of Hemingway are a regular current throughout the book, but it touches on indigenous French such as Colette and Cocteau; and Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co is much in evidence.

“You can blame Hemingway for what happened next. Well, not personally. He had after all been dead since 1961. But his celebrations of hunting, shooting, fishing, bullfighting and war popularized the conviction that a writer should be a person of action as well as ideas. Numerous authors, inspired by his stories of safaris, boxing matches and battle, had been gored, shot, knocked insensible, or (not least) left with horrific hangovers trying to prove they were his equal.”

This is a pure gem of a book; Baxter obviously knows his stuff, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with his erudition. The book is incredibly well-written and readable, a beguiling mixture of fact and personal anecdote and also very, very funny. It actually tells you an awful lot about Paris, but in a fun, entertaining way and I just couldn’t put it down.

Baxter isn’t afraid to debunk myths along the way, and there are some nice little photos to illustrate the text. The book is surprisingly wide-ranging, and in a weird case of synchronicity, the place Baxter lived in England was East Bergholt (a village not that far from me) where he knew the guy who illustrated the covers for “Dance to the Music of Time”! How strange is that!

“On the way back [from the village shop] with a bag of groceries, I’d pause at one of its many pubs for a beer or cut across the fields to visit illustrator and novelist James Broom-Lynne, who never needed much excuse to be distracted. He’d designed all the covers for the twelve-volume series of novels by Anthony Powell called A Dance to the Music of Time and some of Powell’s amused weariness seemed to have rubbed off.”

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The book is categorised on the rear cover as “Travel/Memoir”, which in some way doesn’t do it justice. But it highlights one of the important factors of a volume such as this, and that’s the personal angle. Baxter is a funny and engaging companion on the journey through the physical and historical aspects of Paris, and lets into the book enough of the personal to make us involved, but not so much that it feels like an intrusion. Walking round the city of Paris, steeped in its history, is something of a dream for many readers (me, for one!) and this book comes as close as you can get in book form. Highly recommended!

“A walk is not a parade or a race. It’s a succession of instants, any of which can illuminate a lifetime. What about the glance, the scent, the glimpse, the way the light just falls… the ‘beautiful’ part? No tour guide or guidebook tells you that. Prepared itineraries remind me of those PHOTO POINT signs at Disneyland. Yes, that angle gives you an attractive picture. But why not just buy the postcard?”

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