I am a sucker for books about books, so when my son-in-law gave me a copy of Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms on the Bookshelves for Christmas it was basically read in one gulp (all 133 pages, very tasty). For those of you not familiar with Jacques Bonnet (myself included), I will quote from the dust jacket: “Jacques Bonnet is a publisher, translator, and the author of novels and works of art history, including a monograph on the artist Lorenzo Lotto and a study of the works of Edgar Degas.”
I paid no mind that Bonnet is French, that the books in his own library are in French and other languages that I’d never attempt, or that his life experience in the world of books makes my own association with books almost laughable. Regardless, Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a must-read for anyone who begs, borrows, or buys more books than they will ever have room for. Bonnet writes with wit and warmth and always with a keen eye in describing the rich, but slanted world of those who collect books and build their own libraries. And when I say libraries, I’m speaking of tens of thousands of volumes housed in private residences or additional buildings as needed.
What makes reading Phantoms of the Bookshelves so much fun is learning that people with thousands upon thousands of books still have to deal with how to shelve what they own, just like the rest of us: alphabetical, by genre, by subject, color, size, language, etc. Bonnet’s thoughts and insights are always down-to-earth, happily accessible and often bookishly funny: “the mania for collecting can easily turn simply into accumulating. All one has to do is develop one collecting interest after another, and so on.”
Remembering that Bonnet is a working writer, his library has a great impact on his ability to gather information: “My memory works best at being able to find quickly the book the information is in, rather than by loading itself with facts, dates and quotations which are sitting on my bookshelves.” All well and good, but what about the internet? Patience, dear readers, he covers that topic some chapters later. In fact, the internet “is one of the reasons that drove me to write this little book. Would I ever have put together the same library if I had been born into the internet generation? Almost certainly not.”
Dictionaries of every imaginable subject abound, and those of us who have an overabundance of reference books can take heart at Bonnet’s comments about his own reference shelves: “Some of them I consult every day, but most of them have been opened only once, the day I bought them. Their presence is reassuring however — and you never know.”
Phantoms on the Bookshelves is not a book about collecting first editions. It is a book about owning books, books that come into our possession with the intent, realized or not, of being read. Each chapter is introduced by a quotation from an author or philosopher and these quotes alone are almost worth the price of admission. The purpose of a library? From Diogenes: “To own books without reading them is like having a painting of a bowl of fruit.” So the subject of reading is also covered.
How entertaining is Bonnet’s little volume? The table of contents says it all:
- Tens of thousands of books
- Organizing the bookshelves
- The practice of reading
- Where do they all come from?
- Reading pictures
- Real people, fictional characters
- The world within reach
- Phantoms in the library
Bonnet closes his musings on his personal library with these thoughts: “The books in my library are like old houses, breathing the presence of the men and women who have lived there in the past with their sufferings, their loves, their hates, their surprises and disappointments, their hopes and their resignation.” Not a bad place to live – old houses. – Sunny Solomon