ENDPAPER Bonnet invests reading with the affection, respect and awe we once had for it.
Who can resist a book titled Phantoms on the Bookshelves, and a book cover as beguiling as this? The ghostly white, the blanks on the shelf — promising and mysterious, empty and full, ephemeral and real — beckon us to touch and look closer. Published by The Overlook Press in an elegant edition, Jacques Bonnet’s slim volume of bibliophile essays (translated from the French) is about a man who owns 40,000 books and still insists he is not a bibliophile.
One evening in Paris, after only a few minutes of conversation with his dinner companion, Bonnet discovers that the two have something in common: “We both owned a monstrous personal library of several tens of thousands of books — not one of those bibliophile libraries containing works so valuable that their owner never opens them for fear of damaging them, no, I’m talking about a working library, the kind where you don’t hesitate to write on your books, or read 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.”
He then makes a simple, but useful and amusing, distinction between the kind of bibliophile he is versus the bibliomaniac collector: “a bibliomaniac reader”. The reading bibliomaniac has no interest in rare or first editions but still wants to “hold on to the physical object, to keep it ready to hand”. He is “attached not only to reading but to the object that allowed him to do it…to get rid of it would bring the risk of a serious sense of loss. Whereas a collector frets obsessively about the books he does not yet possess, the fanatical reader worries about no longer owning those books — traces of the past or hopes for the future — which he has once read and may read again some day.”
In Phantoms on the Bookshelves, Jacques Bonnet has once again invested the humble reading copy, the mode through which we first read, experienced, and encountered our favourite books and writers, with the old affection, respect and awe we had for it. The two reading bibliomaniacs spend the rest of the evening (“with the help of the vodka”) talking about what a joy and a curse it is to care for books in this way. “I once had a bathroom full of bookshelves,” he writes, “which made it impossible to take a shower, and meant running a bath with the window open because of the condensation; and I also kept them in my kitchen, which made it out of the question to use certain strong-smelling foodstuffs… Only the wall above my bed has been spared from bookshelves, as the consequence of an ancient trauma. I learnt, long ago, the circumstances of the death of composer Charles-Valentin Alkan…who was found on 30 March, 1888 crushed to death by his own bookshelves.”
Sian Reynolds’ nimble translation retains the conversational flavour of Bonnet’s prose, allowing us to enjoy Bonnet’s witty, charming erudition. In the chapter ‘Organizing the bookshelves’, he frequently references Carlos Maria Dominguez’s The Paper House (“the only book I know where every character is a bibliomaniac”). The hero takes care when shelving his books not to place authors who didn’t get along in life together; “…for example, it was unthinkable to put a book by Borges next to one by García Lorca, whom the Argentine writer once described as “a professional Andalusian”. And given the dreadful accusations of plagiarism between the two of them, he could not put something by Shakespeare next to a work by Marlowe…nor of course could he place a book by Martin Amis next to one by Julian Barnes, after the two friends had fallen out.”
But what of these phantoms on the bookshelf? What exactly are they? The chapter begins with a definition: “fantôm: a sheet or card inserted to mark the place of a book removed from a library shelf, or a document which has been borrowed.” The blank spaces in the bookshelf on the cover represent the phantoms — the absence of books, the different ways books appear and disappear. The way libraries sometimes die, even great ones, books burned, libraries sold and dispersed, books destroyed or lost by its ancient enemies: rats, worms and dust. To this Bonnet says we must add one more: book-borrowers. To the last “the solution is very simple: never lend a book, always give it away.”
But phantoms also mean presence — by its very absence on a bookshelf, a book reminds us of its physical presence. The space between two books is waiting to be filled by an object. Such phantoms are to be welcomed, invited. But there’s another book phantom that is rising; the one we are all quickly becoming familiar with. James Salter in his introduction evokes the phantom we are all staring at: “A tide is coming in and the kingdom of books, with their white pages and endpapers, their promise of solitude and discovery, is in danger, after an existence of five hundred years, of being washed away. The physical possession of a book may become of little significance. Access to it will be what matters, and when the book is closed, so to speak, it will disappear into the cyber. It will be like the genie — summonable but unreal.” But the bibliomaniac reader, Bonnet has shown us, will continue to keep the presence of printed books (and its phantoms) achingly alive and real.