I learned about Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jaques Bonnet from Simon at Stuck in a Book back in early December. It seemed such a charming little book and I was thinking ahead to my impending vacation that I immediately requested it from the library. And it arrived among the battalion of other library books that my turn came round for. But this little book, only 123 pages, was a wonderful indulgence.
Bonnet is French and has worked in publishing as well as done translating and written his own novels and a few studies in art history. Phantoms on the Bookshelves was translated from French and is an unclassifiable genre. Memoir? Essay? Confession and justification of a love affair? Yes. Yes, and most definitely yes.
Bonnet estimates that he has somewhere around 40,000 books. I wanted very badly for there to be photos. He doesn’t consider himself a collector because he buys books in order to read them not for prestige or to make money by selling them again. This means his library is eclectic and has new books mixed with sometimes old and sometimes valuable books. He is widely read since it seems like he can read in a number of languages and since he is French his tastes are distinctly continental. To be sure he does read American and British authors but I’d say fully two-thirds of the writers and books he mentions I have never heard of before. There is a nice little bibliography at the back of Phantoms and it turns out many of the books have not been translated into English. This helped me feel not so completely out of it, but clearly he operates in a different literary world than I do.
Which is a bit disconcerting because bookish folk want to be able to gush over the same books and authors, want to know that others love the same things. And while it is clear that Bonnet is very enthusiastic about books and reading I missed being able to really connect with him over that reading. There was some connection though, don’t get me wrong. He loves Alberto Manguel and quotes him liberally. And there are some books he mentions I have added to my TBR list. I really want to read The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez.
Bonnet is convinced it is in insatiable curiosity that leads us readers astray. We keep reading and we keep buying books because we want to know about the world, about people, about a particular topic, about what happens next, about anything at all. And of course we end up with more books than we can read and spend our lives trying to figure out how to house and organize them all. Bonnet has a very elaborate system of organization that he thinks is perfectly straightforward and simple but left me wondering how he could ever find anything. But then he’d probably think the same thing about my organizing system so we’re even!
You have to love a person who can say this:
Reading tires me out as little as it tires fish to swim or birds to fly. I sometimes have the impression that I have really only existed through reading, and, I would hope to die, like Victor Segalen in the forest of Huelgoat, with a book in my hand.
I know that feeling!
What really endeared him to me is his assertion that fictional characters are real and the authors are fictional:
Hundreds of thousands of people live in my library. Some real, others are fictional. The real ones are the so-called imaginary characters in works of literature, the fictional ones are their authors. We know everything about the former, or at least as much as we are meant to know […] We may be free to imagine what we don’t know about them […] And we are free to interpret their words or their silences […] We know quite a lot about Odysseus, Aeneas or Don Quixote, correspondingly little about Homer, Virgil or Cervantes.
Maybe this is why we flock to author readings, we have to go and verify that the author is a living breathing person since they seem so unreal in comparison with their characters. And while we can imagine how a fictional character might carry on after the book is finished it is hard to imagine what the author might be about.
Bonnet worries that ebooks and a tendency towards overspecialization facilitated by the internet helping us find books more easily will lead to the end of large personal libraries. I’m not sure that is altogether likely. People are still buying print books. And, while I love reading gardening books I am not about to spend all my time and money scouring the internet looking for obscure books on the subject to add to my collection. No, what affects the size of my library is money and space. I only have so much of each and my library must exist within their constraints. I imagine this is likely for a good many of us.
If you are looking for a short and pleasant bookish read, you will very likely enjoy Phantoms on the Bookshelves