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15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Book of Books, 22 Nov 2010
This review is from: Phantoms on the Bookshelves (Hardcover)
Jacques Bonnet, publisher, translator, art-critic, novelist and friend of James Salter (who provides the introduction - as a good friend should) has written a book about owning books - in his case about 40,000 of them. I suppose that the only persons likely to buy a book about having more books than they can read will be those who already have more books than they can read but those who fall comfortably into that posture will, from the first page, recognise in M.Bonnett their like and their brother.

Some aspects of this recognition provide no more than the comfort of knowing that one is not alone: dealing, for instance with the impertinent questions of visitors as to how many of the books in the library one has actually read, M.Bonnett claims with that ingenuous ingenuity so characteristic of 'l'ésprit francais' that 'even.. . books immediately shelved have been read' - 'he knows' explains Mr.Salter, 'what they are, and where they are: and that they can be of use one day'. M.Bonnet is also right on the money when he says that a quick glance at someone's bookshelves is usually more revealing of their character, temperament and general culture than 15 minutes of polite conversation - except in houses where there are no books: where one immediately knows how litte to expect. Such experiences are likely to become more and more common in a world where the television, the computer, and the portable 'phone - let alone earning a living - leave little time for reading anything but text messages, and where anybody who writes anything but 'journalese' is regarded by the typical undergraduate as unreadably difficult.

M.Bonnett quotes Pliny the Elder (via Alberto Manguel) to the effect that 'it is very rare that a bad book does not contain some merit for a cultivated man'. Actually this sounds more like Pliny the Younger to me, whose letter to Tacitus describing the erruption of Vesuvius in 71 AD, records that he, the Younger, was deep in the histories ofLivy at the time, and so chose not to accompany his uncle, the Elder, in the spot of natural history fieldwork which led to the latter's untimely death - a warning, if one was needed, of how right it is to prefer the library to a 'healthy exercise'.

Bitter experience confirms, too, the wisdom of the maxim 'a book lent is a book lost', and of M.Bonnett's observation that 'the solution is very simple: never lend a book, always give it away'- a conclusion reached by me some years ago, and one that makes me more mean-spirited about sharing my enthusiasms than I was in the days of my open-handed youth.

M.Bonnett sounds another dismal chord when he writes about the demoralising consequences of giving away or selling one's books: some years ago I finally lost my temper with Adolf Hitler and, with a naughty sense of irony, took my copies of 'Mein Kampf' and 'The Tabletalk' to Oxfam. I have felt uneasy about it ever since, and the beastly little man has found a new way of preying on my mind, even if I suspect that the only thing in those volumes that I might want to revisit is Professor Trevor-Roper's dismissive introductions to these tedious works. But if it's like that in the case of Hitler - how would it be in the case of an author one actually liked?

More personal is the recognition that I share with M.Bonnett's enthusiasm for 'Robinson Crusoe' - like M.Bonnet, I detect the source of this fascination in Crusoe's 'organised solitude', and perhaps, also, that quintessentially male preference for doing things without help - which drives the other sex mad. I was struck, too, by M.Bonnet's 'systematic refusal' - for reasons that he says remain a mystery - to read any of his set books at school which, says M.Bonnett, meant that he had to wait an extra 10 years before discovering Montaigne, Racine, Diderot or Balzac, or in my case, Defoe, Swift, and the wonderful Richard Hughes - though I have still to recover from my school-inspired aversion for Ted Hughes, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter.

The book is elegantly translated by Sian Reynolds, nicely bound by the Maclehose Press - though I have my doubts about the paper - and not unreasonably priced - but, alas, it's one for the incurables, I'm afraid.
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