Staff Picks

Phantoms on the Bookshelves

July 30, 2012


People collect all manner of material goodness—cars, antiques, orchards, and art. . .

People collect all manner of material goodness—cars, antiques, orchards, and art... high-end electronics, vintage clothing, or friends on Facebook. But there is a certain breed of person, those that Nicholas Basbanes says are afflicted with A Gentle Madness, that live largely within their collections, beyond the surface of the physical objects themselves. Among the gently mad you'll find worlds within worlds, both real and imagined, well-researched as well as revelatory. Among the gently mad you'll find a literal library of riches. Among the gently mad you'll find books.

When most authors come to Milwaukee, they like to take in the airy interior of the Calatrava wing at the Art Museum, or drive along the city's north shore overlooking Lake Michigan while wondering at the mile-upon-mile of fairytale mansions the city's industrialists built there so long ago. So when Jeffrey Gitomer visited us years ago and asked instead to be taken into the dark and dusty recesses of one of the used bookstores downtown, we immediately recognized a co-conspirator. When he released The Patterson Principles of Selling a few years later, a small volume based on the ideas of National Cash Register founder John Henry Patterson, we recognized the bibliophile behind the work, for only someone that has spent a good deal of time scouring bookstores would have found Patterson shelved in one and, almost a century later, pull him down from the shelf, take him home, recognize in his ideas a man after his own mind, and then proceed to write all about it for a new generation of salespeople.

Our president and founder Jack Covert, upon returning from a visit to a separate friend in the industry a few years ago (I don't remember whom at the moment), told me how their collection had grown so large that they had installed bookshelves in one of the bathrooms—anything to keep their working library and the ideas they contain close at hand. That may seem slightly out of the ordinary, but you'll find similar solutions common among the gently mad. Amongst those that collect books, it is almost enviable that the need would even arise. Jacques Bonnet, in his new book Phantoms on the Bookshelves, writes about how one of his bathrooms shared a similar fate, and how his decision to move books into the bathroom was connected to the fate of composer Charles-Valentin Alkan:
I once had a bathroom full of bookshelves, which made it impossible to take a shower, and meant running a bath with the window open because of the condensation; and I also kept them in my kitchen, which made it out of the question to use certain strong-smelling foodstuffs. As was the case for many of my colleagues, it was years before I could afford a living space equal to my book-collecting ambitions. Only the wall above my bed has been spared from bookshelves, as the consequence of an ancient trauma. I learnt, long ago, the circumstances of of the death of composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, sometimes described as the "Berlioz of the piano," who was found on 30 March, 1888 crushed to death by his own bookshelves. Every craft guild used to have its patron saint and martyr, so Alkan the elder, the virtuoso pianist whom Liszt admired, and who inherited Chopin's pupils from him, must surely be the patron saint of demented book collectors. As in the Greek myths, there are several variants of his tragic end, and a different one suggests he was the victim of a heavy umbrella-stand, but since there is room for doubt, I prefer my version. I also possess in my record collection, in homage to this tutelary martyr to our gentle and inoffensive obsession, a classic R.C.A. vinyl of his Grande Sonate, "The Four Ages," recorded in January 1979 by Pierre Reach.
I suppose only the sickest among us will envy the author for owning that bit of vinyl, or love the story he's able to tell along with it. Practicality would suggest it's both unnecessary and undesirable to turn over so much physical space in your home to material that is increasingly available in cyberspace. James Salter's introduction to the book, which ran in The New Yorker earlier this month, discusses this problem and The Paradise of the Library, and dissolves like Bonnet's story above into an exploration of an obscure figure:
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.
And the writer is no longer imprisoned in the space of the bookshelf, either. Discussing the dilemma of how to organize one's books in physical space, Bonnet writes somewhat forlornly:
Before long, in any case, this kind of problem will probably be of interest only to a few people. Downloading from the internet, looking up books on websites—and the possibility, at any hour of the day or night, and from any corner of the globe, of finding an out-of-print book through an online network of second-hand dealers—is surely on the way to making this dilemma redundant. And with ever greater specialization of fields of research, we are going to see the disappearance, or at any rate the diminution, of large-scale personal libraries of a general character. Bibliophiles will still keep their collections, and libraries devoted to precise topics will survive, but we may be pretty sure that vast and unwieldy personal collections of a few tens of thousands of books are likely to disappear, taking their phantoms with them. This little book is being written from a continent which is about to be lost forever.
Practicality may be on the side of sinking that continent, but practicality can be boring. Personally, I find libraries—especially those that reflect the interests and idiosyncrasies of individual owners—endlessly fascinating. I know I'd like to see Gitomer's library if it still exists, take a gander at what's occupying Seth Godin's shelves, or be a bookworm making my way through whatever Douglas Rushkoff has acquired over the years. And, even if it may be of a time and a tendency that is passing from the world, Bonnet's exploration of the life he shares with his books and that his books have shared with him is delightful. I think it's very worthy of a space in your home, or if you want to get ironic with it, on your e-reader.

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