The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, by Phyllis Rose

>> Saturday, February 25, 2017

TITLE: The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading
AUTHOR: Phyllis Rose

PAGES: 271
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Non Fiction

Phyllis Rose embarks on a grand literary experiment—to read her way through a random shelf of library books, LEQ–LES

Can you have an Extreme Adventure in a library? Phyllis Rose casts herself into the wilds of an Upper East Side lending library in an effort to do just that. Hoping to explore the "real ground of literature," she reads her way through a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES.

The shelf has everything Rose could wish for—a classic she has not read, a remarkable variety of authors, and a range of literary styles. The early nineteenth-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 those about aristocratic Austrians. California detective novels abut a picaresque novel from the seventeenth century. There are several novels by a wonderful, funny, contemporary novelist who has turned to raising dogs because of the tepid response to her work.

In The Shelf, Rose investigates the books on her shelf with exuberance, candor, and wit while pondering the many questions her experiment raises and measuring her discoveries against her own inner shelf—those texts that accompany us through life. "Fairly sure that no one in the history of the world has read exactly this series of novels," she sustains a sense of excitement as she creates a refreshingly original and generous portrait of the literary enterprise.
The premise of this book is a project that really appealed to me. In fact, I've half convinced myself I should do something like it myself (if maybe not write a book about it). Rose decides she will take a quasi-random shelf in her local library and just read through it.

It's only quasi-random because she immediately realises she needs a couple of rules, otherwise, popular and prolific authors being what they are, she'll end up reading a shelf that's just, I don't know, Danielle Steel. Her shelf must have at least one classic she hasn't read but is interested in, it must have enough different authors (including a respectable number of female authors), and if there's an author there with several titles, she is required to read only 3. All sounds eminently sensible to me!

And that's what the book (mostly) is: Rose talking about her experience in reading those books. She starts out with the classic, a Russian book called A Hero of Our Time, and it was clear she was taking this seriously when she tries several different translations to see if any of them help her 'get it' (I'd never heard of the book, but strangely, just last week I saw a ballet based on it advertised!). She tries an almost forgotten South African author. She reads The Phantom of the Opera. She reads a picaresque Spanish novel which she finds unexpectedly appealing. She discovers a contemporary author she really enjoys, to the point that she even contacts her and meets her.

Strangely enough, even though I wasn't particularly tempted to read any of them (and a couple of them evoked a 'hell, no!'), I still really enjoyed her discussions of them. She approaches her books with a very open, generous mind, willing to look for something valuable, even in books that do not appeal to her. And she does find it! I guess I'd describe her as "game". She gives these books an open-minded shot.

I said the book is only 'mostly' Rose's experiences reading those books. She also has a couple of chapters that don't quite fit into that theme and are basically essays on a particular subject that interests her. I had a mixed reaction to these. The one about how libraries weed out books was fascinating, while the one where she moans about negative reviews, not so much. Good or not, I had a bit of an issue with them being there at all. That was not what I signed up for when I chose to read the book, and it felt a bit like these chapters were only there to fill up space.

Still, on the whole I liked the book and found the idea quite inspiring. I might visit the lovely Liverpool Central Library soon and look up a likely shelf!



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