Jacques Bonnet lives up to his reputation as novelist, translator and a manic bibliophile through his book Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Originally written in French, this book expands the tale of one bibliophile to many others, allowing the readers hearty peeks into their bookshelves, their patterns and habits of collecting, buying and selling, and obtaining books as well as the art of reading them. Reading in this book takes the very act into a different level, the jouissance inherit in reading itself. No longer is the term reading self-evident; rather it is orgasmic, addictive. It is a life and a career of its own, it is writing and breathing and living. And I relate.
Bonnet satiates the thirst of literature and book lovers through valuable literary anecdotes. His accounts are both informative and charming (if you are a book lover, expect a few Goosebump-y episodes every now and then). Bonnet tells it all: from organizing your bookshelves and creating an exclusive system, to the difference between real/fiction characters and the author, to the tales and habits of reading, writing, record-keeping and library collections. The book is an easy, fast and enjoyable read of 123 pages distributed among 9 chapters.
Bonnet tells us that reading is a conversation with the past, a walk down a Borges-ian labyrinth or a Zafon-ian cemetery of forgotten books. It is a lively experience, a meeting with the dead and the great, (not in such a disturbing manner as this sentence conveys).
Bonnet quotes the author of Les Fous Litteraires (Literary Madmen), Andres Blavier in a splendid quote which reads:
“What bliss it is, after a day in a city you have always meant to visit, as you sit in your hotel room at the end of the afternoon, working through the books, postcards and brochures destined to find their way to your bookshelves, all giving you the comforting feeling that you are taking home some tangible elements of what has already become the past! It gives you the impression of lost time, whereas everything else, the emotions and sensations of the journey, will be fleeting memories.”
On another note, Bonnet also shares his own experience with writing, reading and book-collecting, allowing us to trace the contours of that obsession and relating it, in its manifold of layers, to our own, hidden or explicit. He admits that he would never have compiled the amount of books he has now had he been born in the internet generation. He writes:
“Oddly enough, the infinite source of information which the internet provides does not have the same magical status as my library. Here I am in front of my computer, I can look up everything I want, jumping even further in time and space than through my books but there’s something missing: that touch of the divine. Perhaps it’s something physical: I’m only using my fingertips: the whole process is outside me, going through a screen and a machine. Nothing like these walls lined with books which I know – almost – by heart. On one hand, I feel as if I have a fabulous artificial arm, able to move about in that interstellar space outside, while on the other, I am inside a womb whose walls are my book-lined shelves – the archetype in literature would be inside Nautilus [sic.] 20,000 leagues under the sea. As you see, it is not always a rational matter.”
Bonnet’s Phantoms of the Bookshelves also credits the genius of great writers, collectors and thinkers, while all the while, intentionally or not, sharing valuable titles and recommendations. After 123 pages, I came to be reminded of another similar and valuable book about books, reading, collecting and the internet age by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, This is not the End of the Book; is a conversation curated by Jean-Philippe De Tonnac. Both books are a must on every bookshelf.