|Pages/Publication Date:||271 / 2014|
After a career of reading from syllabi and writing about canonical books, the author of The Year of Reading Proust decided to read like an explorer. Casting herself into the untracked wilderness of the New York Society Library, Phyllis Rose chose a shelf of fiction almost at random (author names alphabetized from Leq to Les) and read her way through it. Unsure of what she would find, she was nonetheless certain "that no one in the history of the world had read exactly this series of novels." What results is a spirited experiment in "Off-Road or Extreme Reading," as she dubs it. Rose's shelf of roughly 30 books has all the variety of ambition and style she could wish for. The 19th-century Russian classic A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov is spine by spine with The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Stories of French Canadian farmers sit beside tales about aristocratic Austrians, and California detective novels abut a novel from an Afrikaans writer who fascinates Rose to the extent that she tracks down a video recording of his funeral. A joyous testament to the thrill of engagement with books high and low, The Shelf suggests that there are treasures to be found on every library or bookstore shelf. As Rose investigates her finds and measures them against her own inner shelf—those texts that accompany her through life—she creates an original and generous portrait of the literary enterprise.
"In encouraging us to be more independent thinkers, less swayed by convention and the critical consensus, more empathetic and open-minded, her book teaches us much about how to approach life as it does about how to read books."—Boston Globe
"It's thrilling to see, in The Shelf, the happenstance and whimsy that sprang from a random grab bag of books. And the vastness of possibility those books (good or bad) possess is a terrific match for the vastness of Rose's intelligence, which swerves from scholarly to oddball, and from sophisticated to fun."—Bookforum
"Literary critic and biographer Rose ... takes us on another mind-revving reading escapade. This time she designed a literary expedition in which she read each and every book found on a shelf in the fiction section of the venerable New York Society Library, recording her adventures in 'Extreme Reading' in a richly entertaining and enlightening chronicle. Among the many titles on her century-spanning, literarily diverse library shelf are the Russian classic, The Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov; Alain Le Sage's early eighteenth-century picaresque novel, Gil Blas; several books by Gaston Leroux, including The Phantom of the Opera; detective novels by the Edwardian novelist William Le Queux and today's John Lescroart, and the canny and funny novels of Rhoda Lerman. Each book is a catalyst for provocative inquiries, inspiring Rose to consider the crucial truths gleaned from fiction, the lives of writers, the status of women writers past and present, the distinctions (or lack thereof) between popular and literary fiction, how libraries acquire and 'weed' books, the value of reviews and literary criticism, and the many joys of reading in the digital age. A seasoned, open-minded, and passionate reader, inquisitive thinker, and delectably lucid and witty writer, Rose rallies readers to affirm our love of literature and libraries."—Booklist (starred review)