Jacques Bonnet is a distinguished French art historian and novelist who has amassed a private library of 40,000 volumes (around double the number contained in the average Waterstones). Phantoms on the Bookshelves is Bonnet’s meditation on a life lived with so many books.
Particularly pressing is the matter of classification. ‘Should I put Norbert Elias’s What is Sociology? next to his more historical works?’ he worries. ‘Should Paul Veyne’s Comment on écrit l’histoire be next to his studies of sexuality and euertegism (gift-giving) in ancient Rome? Does Picasso count as French or Spanish? Modigliani as Italian or French? And what am I to do with Michelangelo?’
At this point one is tempted to answer the question in a rather crude manner, and in fact the book is not always easy for an Anglophone reader to take. This is partly because many of the books referred to are by untranslated French authors, but also because it sits in a recognisably Gallic tradition of works such as Marcel Bénabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books or Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read — witty, professorial, self-effacing, but concerned with problems that one suspects even the author doesn’t really care very much about. A better title might have been Crushed to Death by Bookshelves, since this was the fate of one of Bonnet’s heroes, Charles-Valentin Alkan, ‘the patron saint of demented book collectors’, who met his end in this manner in 1888.
Despite the fact that Phantoms on the Bookshelves is being published at a time when digitised books and the internet are threatening the future of libraries, Bonnet is too much of a bibliomane to be very interested, which makes one’s heart warm to him. Nothing, for Bonnet, will ever replace the book, and his love letter to biblio-lunacy is full of anecdotes about fellow collectors. One of the best concerns a bookman and his wife who were taken hostage by a gangster in their own home. The gangster, before sending the man out to collect his life savings from the bank, threatened not to kill his wife, but to set fire to his library. The man paid up.
Phantoms on the Bookshelves also contains some good advice for library owners pestered by friends wanting to borrow a book: ‘Never lend a book, always give it away. Then things are absolutely clear.’