James Salter puts in an appearance this week on the New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, with an essay in praise of private libraries. It’s taken from his introduction to Phantoms on the Bookshelves, Jacques Bonnet’s chronicle of his life spent reading and collecting, just out from Overlook Press. The book sounds luscious, as it should—Bonnet boasts some 40,000 volumes in his library, and his tastes are eclectic and wide-ranging.
I have an awkward relationship with books by book collectors about collecting books. They rub me the wrong way at the same time they pull me in; they strike me as precious even as I recognize myself in the description of that greedy, acquisitive, borderline-hoardy love of owning books. Nicholas Basbanes and his accounts of gently mad bibliophiles—they remind me a bit of those wryly affectionate tales of parenting. I don’t really want to have myself pointed out to myself, even as I happily devour them (bibliophile books, that is—I think I’ve hit my lifetime quota on wryly affectionate parenting tales).
Bonnet’s memoir, though, looks like some good stuff. Salter leads off with a comment from Anthony Burgess that I like, about there being no better reason for not reading a book than having it (the actual quote is “The possession of a book becomes a substitute for reading it,” which is a bit bleaker). He does have to get in his little bit of token codex-centricity, but I guess that comes with the topic, so OK. He gets right down to the meat of the matter soon enough, which is the deep and satisfying luxury of having a library of one’s own:
A private library of good size is an insolent form of riches, and the desire to have more books is difficult to rationalize, especially in view of the fact that you do not or cannot read them all but, as Bonnet makes clear, still you might. The bibliophile is, after all, like a sultan or khan who has countless wives already but another two or three are always irresistible.
And the little glimpse he offers of Bonnet’s world is voluptuous, bordering on a kind of bookish erotica. Granted, that’s something Salter’s particularly good at. But that doesn’t stop me from immediately wishlisting Phantoms on the Bookshelves, based on his roll call of a few characters Bonnet has loved:
Count Serlon de Savigny and his beautiful fencing-champion mistress, Hauteclaire Stassin, who together murder the count’s wife and live happily ever after in Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s “Happiness in Crime,” or Edvarda, the trader’s daughter in Knut Hamsun’s “Pan,” who sometimes came to the cabin where Lieutenant Thomas Glahn lived near the forest with his dog, Aesop.
OK, I’ll bite. Anyone with an intricate and secretly-coded system of piles and shelves and double-stacking is a soul mate as far as I’m concerned. Do I want to read about it? Not really.
Well yes, of course I do. But furtively—make that privately. Just forget I said anything.