Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet (translated from the French by Siân Reynolds)

The “phantoms” in the title is misleading. They aren’t what you think. Jacques Bonnet’s explains in his 2012 book of essays, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, that a fantôm is a “sheet or card inserted to mark the place of a book removed from a library shelf, or a document which has been borrowed.”  Of course he delights in the play on words – who wouldn’t? This romantic notion that the ghost of the absent volume remains behind is in a chapter about the dismantling of libraries. A process and event Bonnet, the owner of some 40,000 books, takes very seriously. 

Surprisingly Bonnet, by his own account, doesn’t consider himself a collector.  He identifies primarily as a reader and, outside of the number of books it contains, views his library as neither special or valuable.  In fact, he strives towards the exact opposite:

… a monstrous personal library of several tens of thousands of books – not one of those bibliophile libraries containing works so valuable that their owner never opens them for fear of damaging them, no, I’m talking about a working library, the kind where you don’t hesitate to write on your books, or read the in the bath; a library that results from keeping everything you have ever read – including paperbacks and perhaps several editions of the same title – as well as the ones you mean to read one day.  A non-specialist library, or rather one specialized in so many areas that it becomes a general one.

Jacques Bonnet is a beacon among the reading carrels. And in this elegant translation by Sian Reynolds, written in a conversational style, he delves into the minutia of owning, caring for and housing (never over the bed!) a personal library. He peppers his own experiences with the stories of literary and historical figures who share his compulsion, and explores the quirks and issues which only the book obsessed bond over. All with equal parts practicality and humor.

These are the subjects that booklovers discuss for hours (if not days, weeks and months) on end.  My favorite chapter is called, simply, “Organizing the bookshelves”.  It contains a funny excerpt from the novel The Paper House which describes the main character, Carlos Bauer’s, aversion to placing two authors together on one shelf after they have quarreled in real life.

‘…for example, it was unthinkable to put a book by Borges next to one by García Lorca, whom the Argentine writer once described as “a professional Andalusian”.  And given the dreadful accusations of plagiarism between the two of them, he could not put something by Shakespeare next to a work by Marlowe…’

Bonnet also provides George Perec’s list of 12 methods of classification, and goes on to review their pros and cons. I’ve attempted 6 of the 12.  My books have been shelved by category, alphabetically (at different times) by both author and title, and by color.  I’ve wrapped them in rice paper to create visual uniformity.  I’ve created completely personal systems with shelves dedicated to specific areas of interest: pandemics/disease (containing both fiction and non-fiction), philosophical (where Franny & Zooey cuddled with the Dalai Lama), and Sherlock Holmes (Doyle’s original stories, scholarly articles and pastiches).  Faulkner once had his own little kiosk in my bedroom.   I’ve put series together and organized my art books by size.  The one classification I’ve yet to attempt is by geography… and I don’t see myself doing so in the foreseeable future.  Too much potential controversy.  Do you distinguish based on the setting of the action, the original language a book is written in or where the author’s lives (should I use her birthplace, where she spent her formative years or her current country of residence?  Should I care about dual citizenship?).

But the fun doesn’t stop at organizing!  Once you’ve shelved the books a whole new area opens up like a new level in some strange literary video game — cataloging. So prepare yourself for nine delightful chapters on topics ranging from the internet, the act of reading, the accumulation of books and “Reading Pictures.” At the end is a bibliography of all the titles mentioned and at the beginning is an introduction by James Salter, who also is the translator.  Jacques Bonnet has something here to suit every bibliophile’s taste, regardless of whether you write in the margins or not. (See chapter four.)

Phantoms on the Bookshelves will appear on the bookshelves of a shop near you Thursday, July 5th.  Until then – I’m curious – what’s your favorite way to organize your books?

Publisher:  The Overlook Press, New York (2012)

ISBN:  978 1 59020 759 8

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6 thoughts on “Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet (translated from the French by Siân Reynolds)

  1. Apparently, I’ve organized my books using nearly every method – alphabetically, by publisher, by color, chronologically, by genre, with those I reread frequently in one place and those I’m unlikely to read again in another, by size, by texture of the cover, by accessibility (sorry, but some of you books get relegated to the shelf blocked by the floor lamp), and randomly too. In other words, it’s a big mess, but I seem to know where everything is.


    1. Ha Scott! That nicely describes the current state of my library. It’s amazing, isn’t it? I can’t remember where I put the car keys an hour ago, but I’m able to go straight to where I shelved a particular book 6 months ago.


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