Tuesday 10 December 2013

Phantoms on the Bookshelves - Jacques Bonnet

My friend Clare has struck gold again with Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, which she got me for my birthday a month ago.  Admittedly it was on my Amazon wishlist (and thus must have been mentioned by someone in the blogosphere... was it you?) but girl still done good.  I've added it to my 50 Books You Must Read About not simply because it's wonderful, but because it is so perfect a book for the bibliophile blogger.

Published in 2008 in French, and translated by Siân Reynolds in 2010, Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a sort of memoir and sort of essay collection about what it is like to live with and love books - but on a scale few of us can imagine.  Bonnet is the proud owner of several tens of thousands of books - about 40,000, if memory serves - and talks about people with similar numbers of books as though they were in secret fraternity, which is rather adorable.  Better yet, he is first and foremost a reader, and his books reflect that:
I'm talking about a working library, the kind where you don't hesitate to write on your books, or read them in the bath; a library that results from keeping everything you have ever read - including paperbacks and perhaps several editions of the same title - as well as the ones you mean to read one day.  A non-specialist library, or rather one specialized in so many areas that it becomes a general one.
People who collect books primarily for their value, or who think a first edition is infinitely preferable to a tenth, are anathema to the whole-hearted lover of reading - I could empathise so much with Bonnet, although I have no plans to have a library quite as large as his.  I can see myself getting to ten thousand, though, especially if I use Bonnet as my conscience - he has the delightful habit of many bloggers I know; being able to justify any and all book purchases.  I'm sure some of you are longing to write in the comments about betraying libraries or cutting down trees or the lust of avarice, but Phantoms on the Bookshelves is not a book for common sense responses, it is a book for illogical aspiration and unashamed book-adoration.

But practicality is certainly not left behind.  I love reading about the ways in which people organise their bookshelves, and this is all the more important if books are likely to disappear forever if disorganised.  Bonnet writes fascinatingly about finding space for big collections, and about the various schemes he has considered for his own collection - which reveals it to be far broader than I can boast.  He worries about where to put authors born in Yugoslavia, now that it no longer exists, what to do with his Frisian books, and all sorts of other considerations which my largely-British largely-literary library has never really had to worry about.

His chapters on not just on organising bookshelves, of course. He writes wonderfully about reading itself ('every time you open a book for the first time, there is something akin to safe-breaking about it'), about diaries, dictionaries, destitute authors, and - heartbreakingly - those libraries lost to destruction.  Not just Alexandria and the like, but personal libraries lost to fire, and what the possessors did afterwards.  Bonnet also suggests - another way in which these bookshelves are filled with phantoms - that the enormous library is possibly a doomed creature:
we may be pretty sure that vast and unwieldy personal collections of a few tens of thousands of books are likely to disappear, taking their phantoms with them.  This little book is being written from a continent which is about to be lost forever
He blames e-readers, I think, but perhaps the premium of space will also play its part.  But I can't see why there wouldn't still be just as many people who can afford to have this luxury as there were before...

The mark of a great book about books is whether or not familiarity with the titles mentioned matters.  One of the reasons I love and cherish Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing is because so many of the authors she writes about mean something to me, either through having read or meaning to read.  I love Alberto Manguel's books on reading, but tend to skim bits about Borges (and love the bits about Lewis Carroll).  Well, Jacques Bonnet mentioned maybe one book I'd read, and another couple I'd heard of, and it didn't matter at all.  Even though a sizeable portion of the books mentioned have never been translated out of French, I still loved reading about them.  That's impressive work, Monsieur Bonnet.

I name-checked Manguel there (and a review of A Reader on Reading is forthcoming) - I love his books, but not in the same way that I love Phantoms on the Bookshelves.  Manguel is a great reader, of course, but he is almost always scholarly at the same time - Jacques Bonnet is more like the friendly face at your book group who will enthuse about managing to squeeze another bookcase into the corner of the living room.  More of a bibliophile friend, in general.  Phantoms on the Bookshelves certainly isn't a philistines' book by any means, but nor does it alienate with erudition.  It would be another perfect Christmas gift for the bibliophile in your life (or to drop heavy hints about) - it was the perfect birthday gift for me.


  1. Yes, that does sound like the kind of book for me. I'm not sure just how many books I do have, because they are not all on my bookshelves, but divided among three countries and four locations (including my parents' home). I do dream of reuniting them all some day, although the shipping costs will probably be astronomical. (My husband, meanwhile, still believes that getting me an e-reader will diminish my book collection - despite all evidence to the contrary).

  2. Sounds perfect, Simon - and anything that justifies my rather obssessively personal attachment to my books, and my need to have multiple copies of favourites because they look so lovely, has to be good!

  3. "I'm sure some of you are longing to write in the comments about betraying libraries or ..."

    You talking to me pal? Actually each to his own and if I had more space I probably would buy more books! What I do not go along with as an essential feature of a "working library" is writing in books; not because I perceive it as wicked but because I find my opinions changing and when I re-read a book (including a textbook) I'd rather not have my thoughts (and errors!) from my past staring me in the face.

    Off to return textbooks to my university library right now!

  4. Having a large collection of books does seem like a luxury when space is finite - but if I did have a large house, I'd make sure I had a large library! This sounds like a wonderful book and I still have to read Susan Hill's book too!

  5. This sounds delightful! Adding it to my list :)

  6. I'm not so overwhelmed by any B&W dichotomizing of e-books and books ('tree-books'). It's the reading that's important. However, to undermine myself immediately, I love the physicality of books and couldn't image possessing a room without them or passing a bookshop without buying something! And (to undermine myself further), I've added this book to my wishlist. ;-)

  7. What a wonderful book for any booklover or bookmaniac like me. Thanks for the review. I love your blog.

    Marianne from Let's Read

  8. I've never heard of this book before! It sounds wonderful and I just requested from the library. Seems to me it will make for some wonderful reading over my upcoming Christmas vacation.


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