Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet
As I’m sure loyal LT readers know, I am an absolute books-about-books nut. I’ll read almost anything if it claims to be about books in general or bookstores or the history of books or even typography.
But as much as I love the genre, it is not a love of total abandon. For every amazing bookish book, there are ten others that have somehow missed the “books are magic” memo and checked their love of the medium at the door.
So, after a few books-about-books disappointments, I’ve started judging the genre by what I call the Fadiman Gold Standard, set by the wonderful Anne Fadiman in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. In short, the Fadiman Gold Standard starts with the obvious (affection for books and appreciation for them in terms of both form and content), but then also incorporates felicity of expression, erudition, perfectly-formed essays, general well-readness, and whimsy. Yes, the Fadiman Gold Standard is super-subjective, but so is reading itself.
This week I randomly discovered Jacques Bonnet’s lovely Phantoms on the Bookshelves and, I am pleased to say, it comes pretty close to the Fadiman Gold Standard. Phantoms is a delightful book that positively oozes bibliophilia. The book moves from chapter to chapter discussing the various questions and problems facing any book collector, classifying the kinds of collectors and readers, and just generally musing on books. It isn’t a book that could be created by anyone other than a man who has spent the last forty years of his life amassing a 40,000-book strong personal library, i.e. Monsieur Bonnet himself. Bonnet is as charming as his chosen topics and bookishly ambles his way through the issues at hand, leading his readers along with a friendly wave and an invitation to explore.
Bonnet’s book only loses points for its lack of innovation. I don’t even really mean this in a bad way, but Bonnet does not add anything new to the genre. Rather, he intelligently writes about his experience as a book collector and gives us his opinions on some of the problems facing other bookish sorts (“Organizing the Bookshelves” being the most practical chapter), but at no point does he arrive at any earth-shattering conclusions or ask any new questions. Part of what I loved about Phantoms was that it did speak to things I myself have worried about as a book collector, but this familiarity is also its downfall. If I’ve thought the same things and come to the same general conclusions, what makes Phantoms worth bothering about?
I guess my answer would be that Phantoms is by no means a “must read.” Rather, it’s a “should read,” providing a relaxing and pleasurable few hours of escape from any more pressing concerns in favor of musing on the specialized problems facing any bibliophile. I promise you’ll come away with a feeling of global community with other bookish sorts and a wee, pleased smile on your face. And definitely a longer “to be read” list than you had going in.