A phantom on a bookshelf is simply a marker that in a formal library setting indicates where a book has been removed, and in a private library may signal either a missing book or a space saved for something that is hoped for but has yet to be acquired. When you look at the charming design of the book cover above, you see hand-sketched phantoms conveying an informality that is a perfect match for the contents within.
Nearly three years ago, Anthony posted on this slim volume, and I immediately added it to my wish list. And promptly received it just this Christmas. Appreciating the beauty of receiving something so long wished for that you forgot you wished for it, I read it just a few days after receipt so that I did not forget that I now had it. What I found was not just a celebration of reading, but an intimate portrait of Bonnet's mind, a myriad of thought paths he has traveled, physically arranged upon his shelves. The life of Bonnet's mind is not that of every reader to be certain, as evidenced by his private library of over 40,000 volumes,
“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 them 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."
Bonnet pays little heed to the monetary value of his books. He acknowledges the means it takes to acquire and house them all properly, but he also admits that his added marginalia immediately devalues many of his treasures making them virtually worthless to the gently mad folks we might encounter in a Brisbane book. He instead dwells on the personal importance of each book he owns, the starting point of one line of thought that led to one book and then another, but also defends the keeping of those earlier reads as something one returns to when one's thinking changes. He recalls a few instances of having no memory of a book read long ago and also of re-reading a beloved text and having no idea what appealed to him on first reading, the proof that our emotional connections to books often outweigh a literal connection to content.
This book is often discussed as having helpful cataloging suggestions, but the librarian in me bristles a little at that notion. I don't believe that Bonnet ever makes any pretense about establishing formalized rules for organizing the bookshelves, but instead, emphasizes that each person must judge their own needs. He includes Georges Perec's "brave attempt at listing the possible methods of classifying one's books," but concedes that even Perec was well aware that "none of these choices is satisfactory on its own" and that "in practice, every library is arranged using a combination of these methods." The laws of classification that govern public libraries have no place for Bonnet and others like him who recognize that no arbitrary classification system's importance will ever supplant the far greater needs of knowing where your books are in the moment you need to find them.
My favorite section of the book comes late in, and adresses the topic of real people and fictional characters.
"Authors are just fictional people, about whom we have a few biographical elements, never enough to make them truly real people. Whereas the biography of a literary character, even if it is incomplete - and explicitly so - is perfectly reliable: it is whatever its creator decided. So are his or her acts and words."
He goes on to illustrate that although Victor Hugo may have exhaustively chronicled his entire life, with an emphasis upon his sexual exploits, these journals are more of a fiction than his novels in many ways. He makes reference to Pierre Bayard's assertion that Holmes was completely on the wrong track in the Baskervilles affair, an offered proof that fictional characters are as flawed as real people and their choices and thoughts may and should be questioned in the same way. Bonnet also has some fun with the fact that real people may hide behind a pen name, a means of constructing a fictional identity for themselves.
This all points to the idea that Bonnet, in offering his own (real) story to us is a bit of a fiction as well who merely points us all to our own bookish realities. Of what we seek from our books, of how their physical organization illustrates the workings of our individual minds, of what we have pulled and what we wish to see where those phantoms reside on our shelves. This book is like a wonderful cocktail party where the conversation is rich and the company charming. It took far longer to read than its small size would suggest because the many books it points to needed to be investigated as I went. It creates wishes. Just loved it.