Phantoms and Personal Libraries: A Comment on Jacques Bonnet and Book Collecting
By Alonzo McBride
In the midst of reading and writing on life, in life and handling one's collections of, well, books (as well as other items owned), I came upon this little work by French art historian, historian, novelist and translator, Jacques Bonnet, titled Phantoms on the Bookshelves.
He talks about the death of the personal library as the result of the increased cost of books, the annihilation of wealth capable (and interested) in reading and collecting huge numbers of books and wonders about the state of information in the age of the Internet. Bonnet is not a culture critic (nor against the internet), philosopher or human science expert in media studies. He is, however, a book collector. He joins the ranks of other such multi-topic writers such as Umberto Eco and Alberto Manguel. Manguel is reported to have a 30,000+ volume book collection while Bonnet states his collection tops 40,000. Manguel is of course mentioned in this book.
Bonnet is not a collector of rare works only (though he does have a few "rare" items in his collection). He believes in collecting for a working library - one in which the reader can pick up each item from its categorized/catalogued section and read at one's pleasure while even marking in the book with thoughts. He specifically quotes Umberto Eco’s statement on book collecting and writing in one’s books. Eco writes, discussing a well-thumbed copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, “…the pencil markings are from one decade, the ball point marking from another. They carry the memory of my relationship to the book” (57-58 in Phantoms). Bonnet believes in reading. He loves to read. And in so reading, he knows that he has collected thought after thought, notation after notation and item after item. But he also shows that o read a book is to touch it, to have experienced something with it. The pencil and pen markings in his books, those also mentioned by Eco, part-and-parcel of the book actually having been read, touched etc.
This work is a personal response to his collecting, his writing and the reasons his personal library have collected in the direction it has gone. And he acknowledges that it will be harder for a huge personal library in the future to become so huge it becomes a great general personal collection that crosses many disciplines, languages and genres. Yet, he also notes that he does not really know what the future will hold for writing, object status like books, e-technologies and the like. And it is with this un-knowing the title of the book originates in part. The “phantoms” on the bookshelves are there and not there at the same time. He knows he has not read them all (and they beckon). He knows that he will not have time to re-read too many. He fails to have an idea where his collection may go after his death. Even despite this statement that when he disappears from the planet, his collection will disappear with him. One never knows if he means this or if it’s a “romantic” notion attached to his collecting. He sees a great deal of turmoil, ending and even death in his collection.
On the surface, death automatically recalls phantoms. But on the other, it may just in turn represent a giant uncertainty – a theme that recurs through the book in a great number of ways. Some of which I have touched upon in this essay my mentioning; how he never quite knows which cataloguing method is perfect, where his books will end up in the future and where one discipline blurs with another. I suggest one of the most beautiful unsaid themes in the book is the love for books, ideas, writing, text-objects, technologies of all sorts for writing and the like. The beauty is not in the love itself, but the attached and inescapable melancholy associated with his life, notions of information and its forms and the awesome fact that even though he has all his books in some place (shelf or table or floor), they are always trying to jump out of their place in some way. Nothing will sit just where you tell it to stay. So, where books are beautiful and lovely, there is also this grief and obsession which haunts the collector and manic reader/writer. And in this, Bonnet has touched upon an idea of wonder and beauty for those interested. In fact, though the book is full of facts and quotes, it’s this idea of wonder that is the book’s greatest strength – that invisible human response.
This is a book for some and for all. It discusses book collecting most of all but touches on other areas of collecting as well. And this technique of using “phantoms,” which is a recurring theme in the French philosopher such as Jacques Derrida, is indicative of real art. Bonnet accomplishes a lot…and yet nothing…in Phantoms on the Bookshelves.