Phantoms on the Bookshelves

// Published 29 November, 2010 by Andrew Lamb

A lovely passage on the joys of a life of reading from Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms on the Bookshelves:

“And how do you read your books? And where?” Anywhere, and in any position. I am at any rate very far from the refinement of Guarino, of whom Anthony Grafton tells us that he “liked to read a text while out in a boat, his book on his knees. This way he could enjoy the pleasures of reading simultaneously with the sight of the fields and the vineyards”. Seated, standing, walking – why not? But the ideal is to be lying down, as if the position allows the text to enter the body more easily. Reading has enabled me to shorten the longest journeys, not to notice the hours I have spent waiting in airports, and for two decades to put up with meetings as futile as they were interminable, but which I could not escape. There remain strongly fixed in my memory books so absorbing that they seemed to make time stand still: Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which I read in May 1968, since “the events” permitted me to devote myself to them full-time; War and Peace, which I finished in the back of a car between Paris and Marseille; Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which I read with wonder, while walking, one spring in the early 1970s, towards Caesar’s tower on the road between Les Pinchinats and Aix-en-Provence; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which I began one afternoon and to continue reading which I cut short a dinner-party invitation, finishing it in the early hours of the morning; Moby-Dick, some pages of which I re-read on the whaling island of Nantucket, where I noticed on several letter-boxes the surname Coffin, which figures in Melville’s novel. I am lucky enough to be able to read no matter how noisy it is around me, in crowds or even surrounded by conversations of no interest. I am capable of reading all day, and carrying on late into the night, and to find it restful after a busy day. Reading tires me out as little as it tires fish to swim or birds to fly. I sometimes have the impression that I have really only existed through reading, and I would hope to die, like Victor Segalen in the forest of Huelgoat, with a book in my hand.

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