Jacques Bonnet, Phantoms on the Bookshelves

The number is staggering, but it doesn’t come from the author himself.

You can get a clue from the title of the first chapter in Jacques Bonnet’s memoir/ode to hoarding: “Tens of Thousands of Books.” And you can get another from the photo on the back cover, which shows a garage—presumably Bonnet’s—crammed to the ceiling with overloaded bookshelves, a neglected-looking ping-pong table sitting in the middle.

Maybe Bonnet is too humble to get specific. Maybe he’s embarrassed. Either way, only James Salter, in his introduction, gives us even a ballpark figure of exactly how many books his friend owns: 40,000 and climbing.

This is obviously impressive, in a way. But here’s a thought I kept returning to during the 36 hours it took me to zip through Phantoms on the Bookshelves: given the subject matter (greedily acquiring more books than you can ever read), the format (a book), and the audience (other ardent readers)—not to mention the fact that it was written in French, for crying out loud—could there possibly be less of an onus to make a convincing argument? Every single person who picks this up is already onboard. It’s not a case of preaching to the choir so much as to other ministers.

And it turns out that, actually, no, Bonnet—an author, publisher, and translator—doesn’t feel the need to do much in the way of justification. He speaks about the quasi-religious power of having so many books close at hand, and does some of the usual anti-technology, kids-today grumbling. He describes his own collection as a working library, “the kind where you don’t hesitate to write on your books, or read them in the bath.” Several chapters are devoted to principles of organization, as well as one satisfying (but loving) invective against the scam that is art books: misshapen, obscenely expensive, and almost never reprinted.

But mostly what Bonnet does here is revel in the majesty of his own collection, in the process dispensing a bunch of charming historical anecdotes about libraries and books in general. He lists all the books he can think of in which libraries play a main role. And, best of all, he throws around recommendations like so many bread crumbs.

(Personally, I’ll be tracking down Carlos Maria Dominguez’s The Paper House, Jules Renard’s The Scrounger, and, since it just keeps coming up, Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-fé.)

As for celebrating Bonnet’s bibliomania, well, I can’t quite go that far. Considering how little opposition this book is going to receive, I feel it’s my duty to dig my heels in a bit. Sometimes I think I’m one of the very few readers who doesn’t aspire to an extreme library: I don’t want to be crushed to death by columns of old paperbacks, and I also don’t want the eerily minimalist lifestyle of someone who reads only e-books. I like keeping my favourites at hand, but it also feels liberating as all hell to give the lesser stuff away. I recommend Bonnet try it sometime.

Still, at least part of me sympathizes when he shows genuine embarrassment at owning no books translated from either Montenegrin or Macedonian. And his comparison of a library to an invasive climbing plant—“The gardener, unless he willing to chop it down, can only indicate the direction he wants it to take”—is lovely.

Eventually, Bonnet cops to the real reason he can’t justify, in this book or in any book, owning twice as many titles as Jules Verne had leagues: he just likes them. He likes looking at them, and he likes flipping through them. His library, he says, feels like a snug little second womb. “As you see, it is not always a rational matter.”

Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds. Overlook Press, 144 pp, $19, hardcover

(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, August 2, 2012)

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