Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Shelf

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading / Phyllis Rose
New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, c2014.
271 p.

Bookish people unite! Phyllis Rose has written another tale of extreme reading -- in which she takes a random shelf (LEQ to LES) in her exclusive New York subscription library and reads all of the books on it, documenting her progress.

I both liked and disliked this one. While I see that Rose has a lot of critical skill to bring to bear on her experiment, I don't think that it's a unique effort. So many library patrons are doing this very thing every day -- but then, they're not reflecting on their habit or writing essays exploring each author's context and relevance.

While the plot summaries for each book might be dull going, Rose's commentary on each title is often funny, clever, or enlightening -- she's done her research on each book that came her way. It's a very modern look at the way we read; Rose uses Google, Wikipedia and more to investigate her titles. But this experiment also reveals her own reading gaps. When she reads Lermontov's classic A Hero of Our Time, she becomes infatuated with it, searching out other translations, rereading and researching extensively. But when she comes across Margaret Leroy's Yes, My Darling Daughter, she doesn't recognize that it is a modern novel in the gothic romance tradition until other readers enlighten her. It's illuminating to see the ways in which she responds to the varied books on this shelf; it makes me more conscious of my own reading choices and blind spots, too.

Many readers have commented that they enjoyed the chapter on women and privilege -- something that many bloggers discuss extensively -- Rose shares the VIDA numbers, she talks about false categorization, she discusses A Room of One's Own. It's an important chapter on a topic that can always use more discussion, and I found it engaging.

The other bit that many readers have noted as fascinating was a chapter of library de-accessioning. I guess it must be a glimpse inside for many readers, but as a librarian myself I was not interested in going over this thorny issue yet again and must admit I skimmed that chapter. I really didn't feel like getting into work issues while reading for pleasure!

The key message of this book, for me, was to take a chance at making your own unmediated choices -- in reading as well as other things. Other readers have noted the same element: an excerpt from Kerfe's Goodreads review:
"But if we want to open ourselves to the new, the uncomfortable, the exciting and strange, we need to be willing to look beyond the curated life."

And a long essay about moving beyond the filtered life which I just serendipitously found online is also right on target with the message of this book as well.

Rose's love for libraries comes through strongly over the course of the book, which is nice. And her exhortation to read independently is a wonderful one -- worth reading this book just to discover it, as follows:
Only libraries promote random reading through their open stacks and that ultimately random system of organization, alphabetical order. Otherwise, in all realms, literary and literal, the guided tour prevails... That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it's just a bookshelf. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others.... What do you value? Why? Does reading have more merit than any other way of passing time? Is it useful to read randomly? alone? in discussion groups? bad books? old books? new? I wish that literary criticism could be built back up on the grounds of experience, closer to book reviewing than to academic theory, with a bias toward enthusiasm.......
Well, my fellow enthusiastic book bloggers, that's our call to arms. Keep reading, and keep reviewing, randomly. Let's keep reading off the beaten path!


  1. Melwyk, your commentary about this book is very interesting. This sounds like a book with special appeal to book bloggers.

    1. I think many book bloggers are already the kind of readers that Rose is talking about -- those who read quite variably and explore the many "shelves" that are out there -- and then love to talk about them!

  2. I like what you say about the book and part of me wants to read because I like reading books like this, but another part of me has also grown weary of books like this. Perhaps I will put it on my TBR list should my mood ever change and then I can borrow it from the library. Speaking of de-accessioning, people are becoming more aware of it seems. I had someone call last week and ask if she could have one of our dictionaries when we get a new edition. It happened to be a law dictionary that we keep old editions of and she actually tried to argue with me over why we would need to keep it!

    1. Stefanie, I think part of my 'dislike' of it may just be because I am also wearying of these kinds of books. Feeling a bit like we all do this sort of reading anyhow... But there were some lovely turns of phrase.

      Deaccessioning does seem to be a bit of a public hot button -- I've had similar queries, though never arguments!


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