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

The phantoms on the bookshelves probably aren’t what you think.  Page 110 of Jacques Bonnet’s book of essays defines fantôm as a “sheet or card inserted to mark the place of a book removed from a library shelf, or a document which has been borrowed.”  The chapter, from which the book takes its title, discusses the dismantling of libraries.  It is something the author takes very seriously.  Not surprising, as he is the owner of some 40,000 books.

What is unusual about his collecting mania is that, by his own account, he’s not really a collector.  He identifies himself primarily as a reader and, other than its sheer scope and the quantity of books it contains, explains that his library is neither special or valuable.  In fact, he appears to be striving to achieve 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.

Am I the only one who sees Jacques Bonnet is a role model?

Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a petit trésor that I recommend to anyone obsessed with the physical object which is a book.  It’s an elegant translation – written in a conversational style, discussing in depth the minutia of owning, caring for and housing (never over the bed!) a personal library.  Bonnet peppers his own experiences with stories about literary and historical figures who share his compulsion.  He explores the quirks and issues which only the book obsessed bond over.  Throughout the book his sharp sense of humor is on display.

These are the subjects that booklovers will discuss for hours (if not days, weeks and months).  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.  He then reviews their pros and cons.  Over the years 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).  To this day Faulkner still has 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 foresee 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 the author’s physical location (should I use her birthplace, where she spent her formative years or her current country of residence?  Should I care about dual citizenship?).

The fun doesn’t stop at organizing!  Once you shelve the books a whole new area opens: that of cataloging… *goosebumps* ….

(OK, I feel it necessary to state here – despite it being a collateral piece of information and adds nothing to this post – that I use Goodreads to track what I read, but for the actual cataloging of a personal library LibraryThing has, in my opinion, the slight edge).

…This 125 page book contains 9 delightful chapters on topics ranging from the internet, the act of reading, the accumulation of books and “Reading Pictures” (I love that!). At the end is a bibliography of all the titles mentioned and at the beginning is an introduction by James Salter.  Jacques Bonnet has something here to suit every bibliophile’s taste, regardless of whether you write in the margins or not.

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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“I could live under a table reading Borges.” – Roberto Bolaño

The covers of the Pearls are minimalist & gorgeous. The orange color block is embossed, as is all the text. And, like every other New Directions book I’ve seen, it’s numbered. Imagine a complete set lined up on a bookshelf… stunning!

Everything and Nothing is a collection of Jorge Luis Borges’ writings, released in a New Directions Pearl edition.  I’m a huge fan of the Pearls – they’re throwbacks to a time when paperbacks came in 4-1/2″ x 7″ format and fit handily inside your jacket pocket.  Ficciones holds a special place in my heart.  But this particular collection is beautiful, compact and contains some of the author’s best work.  If you already know & love Borges, it is the perfect vehicle to become reacquainted.  If you’ve yet to have the pleasure of reading Borges’ sublime (truly!) prose, Everything and Nothing is a powerful introduction to the best of the short stories, lectures and essays.

Borges is one of the few writers I’ll read over and over again.  His prose style is clean, succinct.  It nicely balances out against the complexity and cerebral quality of his subject matter.  The Lottery in Babylon is a story about a society ruled entirely by chance.  At first it seems ridiculous, – a city in which all decisions are made through lottery.  But as the story progresses, the plot inverts and life in Babylon becomes eerily familiar.  The Garden of Forking Paths is spy vs. spy, a labyrinthine espionage tale with a twist at the end you’ll never see coming.  Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is supposedly about the internet… but I, personally, don’t see it.  For me it’s a much more straightforward narrative on the manipulation of reality and history by a small group of individuals.  My absolute favorite of the collection, Blindness, is a lecture Borges gave in the 1970’s.  If I am ever stranded on a desert island I want it with me.

For me to live without hate is easy, for I have never felt hate.  To live without love I think is impossible, happily impossible for each one of us.  But the first part – “I want to live with myself, / I want to enjoy the good that I owe to heaven” – if we accept that in the good of heaven there can also be darkness, then who lives more with themselves?  Who can explore themselves more?  Who can know more of themselves?  According to the Socratic phrase, who can know himself more than the blind man?

A writer lives.  The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule.  No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six.  Whoever is a poet is one always, and continually assaulted by poetry.  I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him.  Or a musician feels that the strange world of sounds – the strangest world of art – is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him.  For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune.  It may be an instrument.

Four separate translators worked on the stories and essays that make up Everything and Nothing.  Donald A. Yates, who also wrote the introduction; James E. Irby; John M. Fein and Eliot Weinberger.  This is worth mentioning because Borges voice remains consistent from piece to piece, regardless of who is translating.

I don’t speak or read Spanish.  But in the past I’ve read multiple works of a single author, each interpreted by a different translators.  The substitution of one translator for another can be glaringly obvious.  After reading a book translated by Lucia Graves  I went looking for more novels by its Spanish author.  The next book I picked up was (unfortunately) done by a different translator in whose hands the characters became flat and two-dimensional.  I never bothered with that author again.  To the point: With great power comes great responsibility.  The credit for the smooth flow of this collection is a testament to the skill of the translators.  And while I know it must be so, how could the original Spanish possibly be any better?

Please forgive the poor metaphor, but I find reading Borges’ soothing. Comparable to watching words float by on a stream.  Every so often you fish out an idea like so much flotsam.  Sometimes to keep, sometime to throw back.  You can spend hours doing this.  Days.  Possibly weeks.  And be perfectly content the entire time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me?  It’s time to crawl back under my table.

Publisher:  A New Directions Pearl, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 1883 2