The Shelf From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading (Phyllis Rose, 2014)


My first reaction when I heard of The Shelf was something like — wonderful, a book on books by Phyllis Rose, I love Parallel Lives, why has it never occurred to me that she might still be writing?

My second reaction was astonishment — wait, you can make a book out of that?

Rose’s project begins in the New York Society Library. She is at loose ends for what she wants to read, gazing at shelf after shelf filled with books by authors largely forgotten, and begins to wonder:

Who were all these scribblers whose work filled the shelves? Did they find their lives as writers rewarding? Who reads their work now? Are we missing out? I wonder if, at some point, all readers have the desire that I had then to consume everything in the library, but it is a desire no sooner formulated than felt to be impossible. One shelf, however, might be read, a part to stand for the whole. Even that would take time and perseverance.

Thus I came to the idea of choosing a shelf at random and reading my way through it to find what I would find.

Others must speak for themselves, but I have felt that urge many, many times. Standing in a library, surrounded by books, I want to read them all — or perhaps not to read them so much as to know them — who the authors are, when and where and why they wrote, which books might bring me pleasure, which I should avoid. And, like Rose, I have done reading projects; during university I would create idiosyncratic sets of rules using Library of Congress call numbers to narrow the impossibility of reading the entire library into a list I could manage. Rose is looking for fiction, and she develops her rules gradually as shelf after shelf fails to suit her. Eventually she decides that the shelf she chooses must contain both male and female authors, with contemporary and older books, including one classic she wants to read but hasn’t, and no books by authors whom she knows personally. Furthermore, no matter how overwhelmingly prolific an author had been, she will read only three of their works. Using these rules she finds her shelf, LEQ-LES, chooses 23 books by its 11 authors, and spends the next year exploring them — resulting in this marvellous, warm, exciting book of essays, a travelogue that truly earns its subtitle: Adventures in Extreme Reading.

When I first saw that subtitle I was inclined to roll my eyes. How could sitting and reading a book, even a truly wonderful book, be considered an adventure? Which is ridiculous of me; I know very well how a work of art can enter the psyche and change one’s interior landscape, but still — an adventure? But Rose, through her determination to explore, creates adventures for herself beyond the psychological. She treats the books as terrain and looks at them from varying angles, willing to experience something new even if the book itself is a disappointment. Etienne Leroux’s prose is impenetrable? She contacts the critic who reviewed his works 40-something years earlier and asks for his opinion, then takes to YouTube, finally finding the connection she seeks by watching a video of Leroux’s majestic funeral. Her classic, Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, is overwhelmed by the combative nature of Nabokov’s famous translation? Rose seeks out another translation, and another, paying attention to how each experience differs, challenging herself to find the power and beauty others claim the text contains. And so she goes, through her shelf, refusing to simply sit still and read, but engaging fully with each book she encounters. Rose is fearlessly curious about the range of possibilities each book suggests, and it is this fearlessness that makes The Shelf a travelogue of adventure rather than a package tour.

What moved me the most during my reading, however, was that Rose allows her curiosity to put the comforts of her everyday life at risk. She reaches out to critics, publishers, a cover photographer, and to several of the authors themselves, asking questions, inviting discussions of her project — and with both Rhoda Lerman and Lisa Lerner, these initial contacts develop into relationships. I loved watching the growth of Rose’s friendship with Lerman, an author of feminist fiction who is now “immersed in dogginess” as a breeder of Newfoundlands.  Lerman’s aesthetic is such that the novel she feels is her best work turns out to be, for Rose, “a book I cannot read” — but the two women quickly fall into rapport and build a strong connection.  Over time Rose comes to like and respect Lerman as another human being instead of only valuing her as a particular sort of writer, and decides to “try to open myself up to who and what Rhoda is.” The generosity of spirit here stuns me; I find it difficult at times to open myself up to who people actually are, rather than who I wish them to be, and having done so, it is terrifying to admit that I was at first closed and am only now becoming open. Rose has the courage to do just that, and it is her courage and generosity which shape the entire book.

Where do these traits come from? Rose’s life is her own, of course, but in my eyes she is a woman who stands upon solid ground. She knows what it is she wants when she reads, she owns her tastes without fear or shame, and thus she is able to judge with confidence — and that same confidence allows her to step back, look again, and consider whether or not she is wrong. Building such solid ground for oneself is a process which takes years; for most of us it is much easier to rely upon the opinions of others.  At the end of The Shelf Rose calls on her readers to begin that process:

More people should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, on their own. 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. Intensity, uniqueness, variety, specificity — these are qualities I value, but perhaps you will not. Size is important to me: capaciousness in a work of fiction, length in a career. What do you value? Why?

I have long struggled with what it is I want to do with this blog, and now I think I know. I will try, to the best of my ability, to document my own adventures in reading, without guilt or shame — although as those feelings inevitably arise, I will document them too. For two and a half years now I have been trying to build my own solid ground for which to write poetry and fiction, to discover my tastes and create my own vocabulary to express it. There are times when I am still mystified by my reactions, unable to find the reason that one book moves me deeply while another leaves me bewildered or dissatisfied. Why not bring the journey here to my blog, and share it with whoever happens to stop by? For those that do, I invite you to enter into this adventure with me — but in company or alone, here is the beginning.


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