Briefest of Commentaries: Phantoms on the Bookshelves

Phantoms on the BookshelvesPhantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet

How does one live with tens of thousands of books?

I will almost certainly never have the means to ask myself that question, yet I found Monsieur Bonnet’s little book a charming, funny, moving, and effervescent meditation on that question, and I found myself nodding in agreement with point after point. How does one organize one’s books? Even though I have only several hundred, not twenty thousand, I debate and think over that question regularly. What does one collect? Am I a “collector”? I find myself wanting all the books written by minor authors from this particular school or region, or books written by obscure writers connected to my favorite ones—and Bonnet speaks extensively about these chains of reference and strange logic that lovers of reading go through.

But this is not a book about reading, but rather a book about living with books. It is a book about the act of curating knowledge, experience, aspirations, dreams, memories, pleasures, and about the ways in which the things we own help to define, to curate, ourselves. Yes, this is a book about how things we purchase make us who we are, or at least help to explicate who we are. But strangely, these things—books—do not lead to solipsism, or to self-absorption. This is because books are fundamentally about others, about things outside of ourselves, and our attempts to configure our relationship to those things outside of ourselves. Bonnet does a superb job of considering those facts. The ways in which books=self(or selves!) is especially pronounced when he considers the ways in which fictional characters seem more real than the authors who made them.

This is not nostalgia; Bonnet admits, without any real sense of regret, the rise of the internet, and the differences it makes in the way we relate to things outside of ourselves, and the ways in which we find and retrieve information. Bonnet is not making judgments about the digital vs. the physical here, and this is to his credit. In turn, what he does produce is something quite magical and necessary: perhaps in 500 years, if there are those who want to make sense of how a certain class of people lived at the turn of the 20/21st centuries, and how they approached life, this little volume is a strong contender for helping to contextualize and describe that way of life. Bibliomaniacs like Bonnet are a sort of postmodern monk, and seeing his rule of life on display is entertaining and enlightening. And for those like me, I find myself not cloistered, but nevertheless a part of the order; the hermits of bibliomania may be of smaller means and libraries than the cloistered brothers, but we are nevertheless of similar minds. Bonnet’s little volume is a rule of life for us.

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