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The esoteric pleasures and quandaries of maintaining a burgeoning private library
on October 7, 2012
This book has a very specific audience - bibliophiles with their own library, to which they devote their life reading, organizing, and maintaining. And within that select group, it is targeted not to collectors of rare books but rather to those who actually read and use their books (or might want to read and use a book in the future, which is why they buy it even though they don't really have room for it). If you are one of that breed, I predict that PHANTOMS ON THE BOOKSHELVES will be an enjoyable five-star read. If not, you can safely pass on it.
Jacques Bonnet is a French publisher, translator, and author. For forty years he has been acquiring books, so that, as of the time of writing this slim book, he had a private library of more than forty thousand volumes. It is "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."
Much of the book is devoted to problems of classification and organization. That might sound staggeringly dull, except to those of us who have encountered those sometimes vexing problems and are curious about how others address them - and for the likes of us, Bonnet's discussion is thorough and thoughtful, yet light and witty and anything but dull. The point of organization, of course, is to be able to readily retrieve a specific book when one thinks one needs it. With Bonnet, as with the rest of us, "I can only find my way around because I have personally placed each book in its position, one by one, down the years, and any changes were thought about long enough at the time to enable me to remember them." Still, there are occasions when the system - the coordination of physical reality and our mental mapping - fails. "Sometimes I spend time looking for a book for which the logical place has been overtaken by events. Or failing to find a book that I know I have somewhere. Have I mis-shelved it or is it lost? I cannot always answer that question, or else it is answered too late, when I have already bought another copy. When that happens, should I keep both of them? And if not, then which one?"
Bonnet recognizes that he and his ilk may be among the last of the Mohicans. In particular, the internet has changed, and continues to change, not only how and what people read, but also the need for a personal library amongst the small tribe of obsessive-compulsive readers. "Would I ever have put together the same library if I had been born into the internet generation? Almost certainly not." So, PHANTOMS ON THE BOOKSHELVES may soon be a work of history, akin to a monograph on how library card catalogues worked.
Bonnet of course is French, and therefore much of his library - and many of the specific examples he cites - are French publications. But his interests are remarkably broad and cosmopolitan, and I sense that he chose his examples with an international audience in mind, such that I, who neither know French nor am particularly steeped in French culture and literature, never felt like an outsider looking in.
The book is generously sprinkled with anecdotes and quotations about those who love to read -- or, perhaps more precisely, live to read. For example, there was "a man sentenced to death during the revolutionary Terror [who] read a book in the tumbril taking him to the scaffold, and turned down the page he had reached before climbing up to the guillotine."
Finally, one last excerpt to entice you: Bonnet confesses that he marks his books as he reads them, sometimes in pencil, but also with felt pens or ballpoints, whatever is at hand. "The tens of thousands of books with their underlinings and marginalia, which have absorbed a large proportion of the money I have earned in my working life, are therefore now of no commercial value. This makes a kind of sense, since I have always considered them as a sort of mental and material extension of myself, destined to go out of existence when I do * * *."