A Life Built Around Reading

Phantoms on the Bookshelves is the title of Jacques Bonnet’s homage to the books that fill the bookshelves in his apartment, almost 40,000 volumes according to his estimate. He is not a book collector in the sense of stashing away prized volumes, but rather a serious reader, almost obsessed with its pleasures and the books he adds to his personal library.

Like many readers, Bonnet writes in his books, knowing full well that it reduces their value. But he’s not interested in their value or selling them, but in what he learns from them. He remarks the most difficult part of a reader’s life is where to put all the books. Because his collection is so large, it makes it impossible to move. How I wish I never did.

But each move I have made meant discarding all too many books, books that I never wanted to part with. More than once, I have needed such a volume, only to find, of course, that it was gone, making it necessary for me to buy it once again. Bonnet suggests that “To lose one’s books, is to lose one’s past.”

Then there is the minor problem of how to organize them. There are bookcases in every room of my apartment. Fiction books are organized by author’s last name in one room. Academic books are organized by topic in my study. And a miscellaneous collection of history, travel, biography and memoir reside on the bookshelves in another room.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves
takes us on a stroll among Bonnet’s books. We meet their authors who he claims we know very little. We also meet their fictional characters that Bonnet says we know a great deal.

“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.”

Bonnet reads widely and he introduces us to a great many of those he most enjoys. It is clear, to paraphrase him, that the books that sit upon his bookshelves bring are the closest he will ever come to paradise on earth.

And just recently my favorite bookstore in Paradise (Hawaii), where I spend the winter, closed recently. It was a Barnes and Noble, one of the many in this chain that have closed lately in this country.

I feel the loss keenly. The store was located in the part of town I like most, where I used to go almost every day. Now it is gone. And I no longer go to the area as often as I used to. As if this isn’t enough, it will be replaced for a women’s clothing store, Ross: Dress For Less. “For the latest trends, the hottest brands, and unbeatable savings you gotta go to Ross.” What has happened to this country?

There is still one Barnes and Noble left in town, deep underground in a huge mall, where is almost impossible to find a place to park and with a collection of books that can’t hold a candle to the one that is now defunct. I have no choice, not an enviable feeling.

Now I have to order most of my books online or read them on my e-book, which is a world apart in my view from print editions. I know many readers face this problem now, also not an enviable feeling.

This year before I left for Hawaii, I took a look at all the books in the fiction bookcase and it almost led me to cancel the trip. I thought about the hours I spent reading some of them, the pleasure they brought to my days, the way they made them livable. I picked out a few to take with me, to read them again and recapture some of their magic. Most of them I had to leave, a great loss.

And then I thought about all the books I’ve read on my iPad and realized they weren’t there on the bookshelf. They were nowhere, yet another disadvantage of reading e-books. Verlyn Klinkenborg expressed a similar view in the Times recently:

“…I realize that the physical books are serving a new purpose — as constant reminders of what I’ve read. They say, “We’re still here,” or “Remember us?” These are the very things that e-books cannot say….This may seem like a trivial difference, but that’s not how it feels. Reading is inherently ephemeral, but it feels less so when you’re making your way through a physical book, which persists when you’ve finished it.”