Recently I was gifted a wonderful little book for my birthday, Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms On The Bookshelves. A diaphanous read, it's packed with anecdotes and factoids on the irrepressible subject of bibliomania. As any reader of this space knows, I am a great lover of books. I love the way they feel in my hands, I love the way they smell, I love flipping through their pages, underlining my favourite lines and writing little notes in the margins. But after reading Bonnet's treatise on the subject, I am convinced and must somewhat ashamedly admit that bibliomaniac I am not.
Don't let me disabuse, I can be quite manic about books. My most prized literary possession is the massive Yale Shakespeare which not only features every single work ever attributed to the Bard, but is also typeset based on the authoritative First Folio and features modernized spelling. I am proud of my book collection. I call it a collection rather than a library because according to Bonnet, a private library must consist of 20,000 volumes, at a minimum. Yes, 20,000. I cannot in good conscience refer to myself as a bibliomaniac. Contrastingly, Bonnet boasts a private library of over 40,000 volumes!
Phantoms On The Bookshelves is peppered with tangents and asides on the peculiarities and necessities of book devotees. Storage becomes a major issue, not to mention the horror of moving. Bonnet gleefully describes how the walls of his apartment are covered with books from floor to ceiling, including his bathroom. Of course, it means he has to keep his bathroom window open at all times so as not to ruin books housed there by the steam from his hot showers. The one place Bonnet eschews storing books is directly above his bed. You see, there is a legend involving Charles-Valentin Alkan (no relation), a French composer from the 19th century who was called by Hans von Bülow as the "Berlioz of the piano". The legend goes Mssr. Alkan too was a bibliomaniac who was tragically killed when a bookshelf collapsed on his head whilst, one version has it, he slept. Another version claims he was reaching for the Talmud. The veracity of this tale is suspect at best but its tenor was enough to spook Bonnet from avoiding a similar fate.
I reveled in reading Phantoms, comparing my idiosyncrasies to others' who share my worship of books (the author and I share a preference for reading lying down). Bonnet likes to retain the price of the book on the inside cover to always remind him how much he spent. I too like to retain such tidbits but I also write my name and acquisition date on the inside cover. It's both a mark of ownership and a vain attempt to prevent theft. The thinking goes that a borrower will be less likely to steal a book if he has to be confronted with the reminder of his crime every time he opens it. Naturally, this method has been resoundingly unsuccessful (Bonnet himself mentions that it's unreasonable to expect the return of loaned book).
I wish I had been privy to Bonnet's assertion a long time ago because I am one of those who did expect a loaned book to be returned and would find myself quite annoyed when, in my excitement to share a newfound literary gem, I'd strongly encourage my close friends to read it immediately only to never see that edition again. This was the case about six years ago when something extraordinary occurred. I finally got around to reading Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood and was completely overcome by its haunting brilliance. Just thinking about the novel even now gives me chills. Andrew, a close friend of mine whose expansive breadth of literary knowledge is a source of some insecurity for me, paid a visit and insisted that I let him borrow Murakami's masterpiece. Although hesitant, I relented after repeated assurances that he'd return it to me promptly upon finishing.
I haven't seen it since but I am neither annoyed nor resentful. Norwegian Wood is a novel of such heart-wrenching beauty and masterful elegance that Andrew's possession of it has in a certain sense further cemented our great friendship. He loves the novel as I do, a devotion that transcends physical ownership. Andrew has a twin brother, Scott, who counts Anna Karenina as his favourite novel. He too noticed Norwegian Wood on Andrew's bookshelf and borrowed it. Andrew hasn't seen it since. A novel such as this almost demands to be passed from one reader to another, and its journey from Baltimore, MD to Columbus, MS is one that I'm convinced Murakami would be touched by, and that Bonnet would surely approve.
Recently Andrew came to visit again and noticed a Richard Yates novel, Young Hearts Crying, that he wanted to borrow. I agreed, but with a catch. Andrew left his edition of Evelyn Waugh short stories as collateral.