Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet

Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet © 2012, Overlook Press 2012 hardcover – translated from French by Siân Reynolds – non-fiction essays, reminiscences about books, personal libraries and people

Phantoms on the BookshelvesThe review I read made this sound irresistible, suggesting this is a book “for the bibliomaniac in all of us”. Well, yes and no.

The yes, which includes the fine introduction by James Salter, are that this is a book about books, about collectors and catalogers of books, readers of books, lovers of books. There are chapters on organizing  a large, very large or even smallish (two to five thousand) personal library. The examples range from the library at Alexandria to present day public, semi-public and private libraries. There is a chapter on how we manage to acquire books, follow our various interests from one topic or genre or author or school to another, how and why we collect fiction vs. non-fiction. There is even some discussion of what happens to our books when we are no longer their steward, a singularly unpleasant topic, though it must be faced, by someone, some day.

However, I did have some problems with this book, and they stem from the narrowness of my interests and knowledge. I am primarily an English language speaker, though I know a very few words in French and Spanish. The author of this book is French, and many of the books and authors discussed in it are the same.

Bonnet has a deep interest in classical literature, art, the sciences, philosophy and so on, a classical approach I fail to have though I can, dimly, appreciate it. He collects books on art, for instance, in order to write essays and articles for various publications. I’ve read my share of art history books – and taken classes – but his library goes far beyond my experience. The fiction books he reads include a few I’ve read, such as the Iiliad and a huge number I haven’t and certainly never will. There is little discussion of English or American books or literature, my primary interest.

One thing I found interesting is the oft mentioned desire to have the books, and their contents, especially non-fiction and reference, at hand. To not have to go in search of something but instead have it on a shelf. In a late chapter the author acknowledges the internet is changing this. The author says “We may be sure that…unwieldy personal collections are likely to disappear, taking their phantoms with them. This little book is being written from a continent which is about to be lost forever.”

So in general this is a fascinating book, full of wonderful observations and quote-worthy comments, but when it comes to specific books I fall behind. I enjoyed this, but will likely scan it, not re-read it, when I pick it up again.

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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4 Responses to Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet

  1. John says:

    I enjoy books about books and often any book about rabid collecting will appeal to me. I can usually find some common ground and “relate to” the writer’s memories and observations. But I understand how a bit off putting this book might be in his discussion of entire fields that are not in your interests. If the CPL ha s copy I might pick it up an selectively read some of the essays rather then reading the book cover to cover. Sian Reynold is a great translator, BTW, who has done superior work in translating Fred Vargas’ crime novels. She really works hard at retaining the French flavor of the orignal text. Just thought I’d add that as a selling point for anyone else.

  2. John, you’ve sold me. I’m ordering a copy of PHANTOMS ON THE BOOKSHELVES right now!

  3. Richard says:

    Thanks for the comments, John. I certainly wasn’t saying the book is bad, just that the narrowness of my own experience and interests limited my enjoyment of it.

    George, I’ll send you my copy if you like.

  4. Thank you, Rick! I’ll cancel my order.

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