In his affectionate introduction to Jacques Bonnet’s reflections on reading and collecting, novelist James Salter points out that “a private library of good size is an insolent form of riches.” Bonnet owns 40,000 books, which he reads, marks up and uses for his art-history and literary research — his is a working collection, not a museum of precious rarities. In this case, what’s really “insolent” is that Bonnet’s books are all shelved, all organized, all findable.
Anyone with a serious personal library — that means, in Bonnet’s view, 20,000 or more volumes — recognizes that it’s easy to acquire books, but it’s hard to find a place to put them. My collection, for example, probably qualifies as “serious,” although at least two-thirds of what I’ve accumulated over the years currently resides in boxes, either in the basement or in a storage unit. Long ago, Samuel Johnson spoke of turning over half a library to write one book. In my case, I sometimes turn over half my library just to find one book. When that MacArthur grant finally comes my way, I know precisely what I’m going to do with it. There will be miles of mahogany shelving, two long study tables and the best lighting that money can buy.
In his breviary-like “Phantoms on the Bookshelves,” Bonnet includes chapters on “organizing the bookshelves” and “the practice of reading,” writes lovingly of his art monographs and catalogues, and offers plenty of anecdotes about his favorite authors and collectors. This is, however, no Gallic version of Nicholas Basbanes’s best-selling “A Gentle Madness” (recently reissued in paperback by Fine Books Press, $15.95), which presents in-depth profiles of bibliophiles and bibliomaniacs. Instead, Bonnet offers a personal ramble through his own library, coupled with chummy and sometimes idiosyncratic pensees about the literary life.
For instance, Bonnet distinguishes between “collectors and manic readers.” Henry Folger, who gathered as many Shakespeare first folios as he could find, was a collector; Bonnet, by contrast, is a manic reader, one who grows attached to physical volumes, wants to hold them in his hand and keep them near. In his case, he also admits to “a certain methodical tendency” that drives him “to read all the works of a given writer, then all the books on him or her, then to move on to another writer, or all the books written on a certain subject, or the literature of a certain period, or country,” all the while discovering still other topics of interest. Serious collectors, in other words, focus their energies and cash, while manic readers tend to go wandering through a garden of constantly forking paths.
In this speed-obsessed Internet age, Bonnet reiterates that “the important thing is not so much to read fast, as to read each book at the speed it deserves.” He notes that “to pick up a book in your hands and discover what it really contains is like conferring flesh and blood, in other words a density and thickness, that it will never lose again, to what was previously just a word.” To be away from his library, he says, is to feel “handicapped, as if I had been amputated of some vital limb.” Nonetheless, “to play its part properly, the library must be left behind from time to time, so that one can miss it and then gratefully rediscover it. From a distance, it becomes idealized, and helps one to bear the discomfort of travelling. It is waiting for us at home and is already being enriched with the things we are bringing back with us.”
Like many intellectuals, Bonnet scribbles in his books, “in pencil, but also with felt pens or ballpoints. In fact I find it impossible to read without something in my hand.” There are consequences for this intensive engagement with texts. “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.” Not that it matters, since Bonnet never sells any of them. “To lose one’s books,” he proclaims, “is to lose one’s past.”
Bonnet likes to know what he paid for his books, especially for those bought secondhand, so he never erases the dealer’s penciled-in price. He notes the once-common phenomenon of searching for a certain volume for months or years, eventually finding it, and then, almost immediately, turning up a second or even a third copy. Art books, he stresses, should never be regarded as a substitute for a museum; they simply help educate our eye and aesthetic sense: “Without preparation, without apprenticeship, without reading, you don’t see anything when you visit an art gallery.” In this regard, Bonnet notes that when the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to Pope Pius XII, the punctilious connoisseur Bernard Berenson “immediately asked the first question that would occur to an art historian: ‘And in what style?’ ”
In general, Bonnet’s own style is pithy rather than expansive. He mentions many books, but usually just their titles. A few favorites stand out: Knut Hamsum’s “Pan,” the works of Fernando Pessoa, Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” and the wonderfully titled and (unknown to me) novel “The Time Regulation Institute,” by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar.
Most of his anecdotes are comparably brief. He tells us that the novelist Pierre Louys spent his last years trying to prove that Moliere’s plays were actually written by Corneille. We learn that Gilbert Lely, the great authority on the Marquis de Sade, restricted his library to exactly 100 books: “Whenever he bought one book he jettisoned another.” Benjamin Constant’s “Adolphe” — a classic account of romantic disillusionment — inspired at least four later novels written from the abused Ellenore’s point of view. Bonnet aptly remarks that autobiographies are “no more than a pernicious variant of romantic fiction.”
But what about the impact of the technological revolution of the past 25 years? Bonnet concedes that the Internet is an “infinite source of information,” yet it “does not have for me the same magical status as my library.” The physical always possesses an aura, a holy mana, that the digital can only aspire to. When he is surrounded by his books, Bonnet confesses that he feels snug and self-contained, like Captain Nemo on the Nautilus. As for e-book readers, he doesn’t even give them a passing glance, since “Phantoms on the Bookshelves” was first published in France in 2008.
In case you were wondering about Bonnet’s odd title, he explains that a phantom, in French, is a ghost, but it is also the card that librarians leave to mark the place where a volume has been removed from a bookcase. A library is thus a realm where the dead live again, but also the domain of incomplete plenitude: There are always gaps needing to be filled, and desire never ends. Immensely enjoyable, “Phantoms on the Bookshelves” pays concise tribute to the pleasures and rewards of — to borrow James Salter’s phrase — “a life built around reading.”
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.