8 Great Books About Books: ‘Phantoms On the Bookshelves’ & More

Susan Sontag once claimed to have read every book in her library, but that cannot be true for Jacques Bonnet, because he owns more than 40,000 books! Michele Filgate says he’s written a fine volume on reading and collecting, and she picks seven more great books about books.

07.19.12 10:25 AM ET

Phantoms On the Bookshelves
by Jacques Bonnet

Bonnet owns more than 40,000 books. It’s not the Library of Congress, but for a private collection, it’s pretty solid. In this slim ode to books, the author muses on the life of a serious reader—with Bonnet himself being the ultimate example. In only nine chapters, he talks about many aspects of book collecting: how to organize them, where to acquire them, and the idea of owning a working library rather than just collecting books. Bonnet brings an infectious enthusiasm to the genre. The written word is as important to his identity as his own memories: “To lose one’s books is to lose one’s past,” he says. His love of books is something serious readers can relate to: “I sometimes have the impression that I have really only existed through reading, and I would hope to die…with a book in my hand.” 

The Book Lover
by Ali Smith 

Smith browsed through her personal library and mused on her favorites. The result is a wonderful glimpse inside the mind of one of our best contemporary writers. She includes work by Angela Carter, Marilynne Robinson, Virginia Woolf, Clarice Lispector, Thomas Hardy, and many other literary voices.

A History Of Reading
by Alberto Manguel

Manguel used to read aloud to Jorge Luis Borges, and it was through this amazing opportunity that he learned about some of the books he now loves. Manguel is a master of the “books about books” genre, having written several nonfiction volumes about his obsession. This particular work focuses on not just the author’s personal reading history, but a general history of one of the best pastimes there is. And one of the sentences in this book is my own personal mantra: “Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function.” 

This isn’t so much a book to read from cover to cover but one to leave on the coffee table and open to a random spot. It features beautiful glossy pages and seemingly endless amount of recommendations from various critics and literary experts. You might feel super smart after realizing how many books you’ve already read.

Hans Weyandt of Micawber's Books decided to ask some of the best independent booksellers around the country for their lists of titles they love to handsell. The art of handselling is something indie booksellers excel at, and Weyandt originally decided to post these on his bookstore’s blog. Now Coffee House Press is putting it together in a lovely book, to be published in September, complete with an introduction by the most famous independent bookstore owner of all: writer Ann Patchett.

The Whole Five Feet
by Christopher Beha

Reading is a way to escape your life, but it’s also a way to educate yourself. Harper’s Magazine associate editor Christopher Beha turned to the Harvard Classics after going through a particularly tough time—and the result is a memoir of a year spent reading some of the best books ever written. 

This anthology features essays by some of the greatest writers of all time. Marcel Proust, Robert Louis Stevenson, Michel de Montaigne, Robertson Davies, Italo Calvino, and others talk about everything from the classics to books that have influenced them.

What book nerd doesn’t love trivia? This is like an almanac for bibliophiles. You can learn what a “gutter” is: “The adjoining inner margins of two facing printed pages, i.e., the margin at the sewn fold of a signature.” You can even find out what the first book printed in America was (The Bay Psalm Book). Read this and you’ll be able to impress all of your nerdy friends.