Sunday, February 24, 2013


Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a charming memoir of bibliomania, by French editor and writer Jacques Bonnet. Treading in the footsteps of classics like Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library," Bonnet offers a series of reflections on his personal library and, more generally, on the quality of a life lived with books. Its 123 pages can be enjoyed in an afternoon; its charm lies in Bonnet's quiet self-awareness and wry humor. Throughout Bonnet mentions not only the books he has read (and re-read) but also the numerous authors who have, throughout human history, written about their reading and their libraries. For those interested in books about books, this tiny volume is a great map.

Bonnet is interested in something I've been pondering a lot lately: from where does a passion for books (or passion for the arts, in general) come? In the beginning of the book, he mentions how "reading...penetrated, like a shaft of sunlight, through the gloomy atmosphere of a provincial childhood of the 1960s" and about how both escape from and knowledge of the world excitingly tarried with each other for him during the tumult of France in the late-1960s. These answers are circumstantial, pointing to the power of books to re-contextualize us, to subvert the conditions in which we find ourselves. But he also wonders about the force of sheer curiosity: "The fanatical reader is not only anxious, he or she is curious. And surely human curiosity--condemned as it was by certain Fathers of the church as being of no purpose since the coming of Christ, and even prohibited, since we now have the Gospels--is one of the determining factors of all our actions? A capital element in the search for knowledge, in scientific discoveries or technological progress, the essential force behind human endeavour..." (29)

Otherwise, I was taken with his repeated assertion about libraries as alive. For readers, this is a common reality; for non-readers, it might seem hyperbolic. It is not easy to explain. Bonnet says, "A strange relationship becomes established between the bibliomaniac and his (or her) thousands of books...We may have chosen its themes, and the general pathways along which it will develop, but we can only stand and watch as it invades all the walls of the room, climbs to the ceiling, annexes the other rooms one by one, expelling anything that gets in the way." (31) Bonnet is genuinely surprised as he writes to us about his library, seeing things he had not seen before. "How did these books get into my library?" he asks at the start of chapter 5. The question is not entirely rhetorical.

One of the funniest moments was his discussion of how "human reality sometimes intrudes strangely into the principles of classification" of any library, noting how book collectors think long and hard about which books should be allowed together or forced apart. Apparently, the author of a rulebook for personal libraries in the Victorian era suggested that works of male and female authors had to be separated "unless the parties are married to one another," (41); Bonnet quotes the hero of a bibliomaniacal novel, The House of Paper, who worries about putting Borges next to Garcia Lorca, Shakespeare next to Marlowe, or other potentially unpleasant social situations.

In the end, Bonnet assert that "hundreds of thousands of people live in my library." First, he notes that each book contains a host of "imaginary" characters, with whom we have a deep experiential and psychological communion, who are always there, living their stories for eternity. Second, while asserting that authors are only fragmentary apparitions about which readers know very little, he argues that readers nevertheless are are invested in their reality and are always in search of books' creators. "We are so anxious to maintain the illusion that the author is a real person that we cannot be satisfied simply with an orphan work of literature." (83) Of course, these are the two foundations of fandom--sustained passion for a work and the quest to establish a lasting and strong relationship with others, famous or humble. Escape and knowledge.

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