The Paradise of the Library, An essay by James Salter

This piece appeared in The New Yorker’s blog ‘Page Turner‘ on 20 July 2012. It is a beautifully written essay on a subject I love–worth sharing in it’s entirety. I adore the idea of a private library being an insolent form of riches. I’ve just spent half an hour rummaging around the volumes of my own bookshelves. I am rich indeed.

As Anthony Burgess once commented, there is no better reason for not reading a book than having it, but an exception should be made for Jacques Bonnet’s “Phantoms on the Bookshelves,” just out this month. It appears at a time when books and literature as we have known them are undergoing a great and perhaps catastrophic change. A tide is coming in and the kingdom of books, with their white pages and endpapers, their promise of solitude and discovery, is in danger, after an existence of five hundred years, of being washed away. The physical possession of a book may become of little significance. Access to it will be what matters, and when the book is closed, so to speak, it will disappear into the cyber. It will be like the genie—summonable but unreal. Bonnet’s private library, however, comprised of more than forty thousand volumes, is utterly real. Assembled according to his own interests, idiosyncratic, it came into being more or less incidentally over some four decades through a love of reading and a disinclination to part with a book after it was acquired. Among other things, he might need it some day.

Under the pretense of writing about this library—its origins, contents, and organization—he has written instead this often witty tribute to and perhaps requiem for a life built around reading that summons up all the magical and seductive power of books. You recognize, with a kind of terrible joy, all that you haven’t read and that you would like to read. Titles and names strike what can only be called chords of desire. In these pages, as at a fabulous party, you are introduced to writers who have not been translated into English, or barely. Hugues Rebell, Milan Fust, Anders Nygren, Kafu Nagai, the Japanese writer of the floating world about whom Edward Seidensticker wrote “Kafu the Scribbler,” or Osamu Dazai, “tubercular and desperate,” who attempted suicide three or four times, the last time successfully with his mistress. To these as well as to writers more famous, and to incredible characters: 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.

Bonnet did not resist these books. They became, in a way, part of him, and he manages to bring up the question of what one has read, what one should read, what one remembers, and, in a paradoxical way, what is the use of it. This last question can be dealt with more easily: reading has the power not only to demolish time and span the ages, but also the capacity to make one feel more human—human meaning at one with humanity—and possibly less savage. Bonnet admits that he has not read all his books, which, even at the rate of two or three a week, would take the better part of a century. Some he has read and forgotten, others he remembers, although not always perfectly—indelible, however, are “the two wild duck feathers which the lieutenant, Thomas Glahn, with the blazing eyes of a wild beast would receive two years later folded into a sheet of paper embossed with a coat of arms”—and a great number of books he has only glanced at or not read at all. As he describes it himself, books that he has acquired, that is, has bought rather than received because of his occupation as a writer and editor, can end up in one of three ways:

They may be read immediately, or pretty soon; they may be put off for reading later (and that could mean weeks, months and even years, if circumstances are particularly unfavourable, or the number of incoming books is too great—what I call my “to read” pile). Or they may go straight on to the shelf.

He goes on to say that even these books immediately shelved have, in a sense, been “read.” He knows what they are and where they are; they can be of use one day. He is able, of course, to read quickly since this has long been his work. But some books should not be read quickly. One often hears the expression “I couldn’t put it down,” but there are books that you have to put down. Books should be read at the speed they deserve, he properly notes. There are books that can be skimmed and fully grasped and others that only yield themselves, so to speak, on the second or even third reading.

All of this is normal, and you have probably formed an image of a pallid bookworm, serious and solitary. Bonnet is not like this. He is, to the contrary, convivial, good-natured, even jaunty. He has spent his life as an editor, as a journalist for Le Monde and L’Express, and as an art historian, writing a book on the life and paintings of Lorenzo Lotto. These are what might be called the visible occupations. At the same time, and much of the time, he has read. He has always read. He likes to read, as he says, “anywhere and in any position” although for him—and he is a voluptuary in this regard—the ideal is lying down or, as he elsewhere mentions, in the bath. I have never seen him reading, although I remember that the one visit I made to his Paris apartment was like walking into La Hune; the walls were completely covered with bookshelves and the shelves were filled with books. This was fifteen or twenty years ago, and I don’t know if there was then the full complement of books, nor do I know what forty thousand books would look like; but it was an apartment dedicated to them. I didn’t wonder at the time how they were arranged, and I did not consider what, after the joy of acquisition, must be an overwhelming reality for the owner of a large library: that it is almost impossible to move, both from the point of view of finding another place large enough, as well as actually moving all the books, packing, transporting, and reshelving them.

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. Reading is a pastime and can be regarded as such, but it can also be supremely important. Walter Benjamin expressed it off-handedly; he read, he said, “just to get in touch.” I take this to mean in touch with things otherwise impossible to embrace rather than merely stay abreast of, although a certain ambiguity is the mark of accomplished writers. Benjamin’s life ended tragically. He fled from the Nazis but was trapped, unable to cross into Spain, and he committed suicide. But that was the end only of his mortal life. He exists still with a kind of shy radiance and the continued interest and esteem of readers. He is dead like everyone else, except that he is not. You might say the same of a movie star except that it seems to me that stars are viewed years after with a kindly curiosity. They are antique and perhaps still charming. A writer does not age in the same way. He or she is not imprisoned in a performance.

Books, as Bonnet comments, are expensive to buy and worth very little if you try to sell them. The fate of a private library after the death of its owner is almost always to be scattered. There are exceptions, like the library assembled in Hamburg by Aby Warburg that was moved to London, in 1933, to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis, and that became the heart of an institute for Renaissance studies. But even great libraries, those of schools and cities, have come to ruin, destroyed by fire, war, or decree: Alexandria’s famous library, Dresden’s in 1945, others. An emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, you will learn, the builder of the Great Wall, also ordered the destruction of all books that did not concern themselves with medicine, agriculture, or divination. There were a number of sages who preferred to die rather than destroy their libraries.

The love of books, the possession of them, can be thought of as an extension of one’s self or being, not separate from a love of life but rather as an extra dimension of it, and even of what comes after. “Paradise is a library,” as Borges said.

The writers of books are companions in one’s life and as such are often more interesting than other companions. Men on their way to execution are sometimes consoled by passages from the Bible, which is really a book written by great, if unknown writers. There are many writers and many of some magnitude, like the stars in the heavens, some visible and some not, but they shed glory, as Bonnet makes clear without the least attempt at persuasion.

Photograph by Maurizio Cogliandro/Contrasto/Redux.

This essay is drawn from Salter’s introduction to “Phantoms on the Bookshelves” © 2012 by Jacques Bonnet; translated from French by Siân Reynolds and published by The Overlook Press.

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