Well, it all seemed to go pretty well! Thank you so much for coming over to my new haunt. I will keep the terror at bay by carrying on as if things were normal – which I suppose they pretty much are, all things considered. And I’m going to be writing about another entry in my ongoing list of 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About, which is coming very near its 50th entry (and another will be added quite shortly).
The book (2014’s The Shelf by Phyllis Rose) is one I bought in Washington DC – in the remainder basement of Politics & Prose, no less – which Thomas from Hogglestock coincidentally bought in the same place not long before. We mentioned it briefly in the episode of The Readers that we recorded together, at which point I was in the middle of it and loving it. (As I also mention in that episode, I love buying books on holiday and starting them immediately – offering an opportunity for impetuous reading that I seldom give in to at home.) A day or two later I finished it, and my opinions were confirmed – it’s a real delight of a book that bibliophiles anywhere would love, I feel certain.
In some ways, Rose is like a blogger – in that she’s set herself a book project, and is documenting how she goes about it. Her task: to read everything on a shelf picked at random from the New York Society Library’s stacks. The idea for the experiment stemmed from a thought that many of us will wholeheartedly empathise with:
Believing that literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical – that is, writers chosen for us by others – I wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature.
And, perhaps equally:
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.
Her opening chapter documents the difficulties she had with the supposed randomness of this exercise. Rose does not want to be left reading thirty books (for that was approximately how many were on each shelf) by the same author. She sets various parameters, but ultimately lands on the shelf LEQ to LES. And these are the authors on that shelf: William Le Queux, Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James LeRossignol, Margaret Leroy, Alain-Rene Le Sage, and John Lescroart.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be left scratching your head and wondering whether you really knew as much about books as you’d thought. The only author I’d heard of was Gaston Leroux, and I couldn’t remember why (and only later recalled that he wrote The Phantom of the Opera). Would I enjoy The Shelf, since it concerned only authors I knew nothing about?
I needn’t have worried.
This book is filled with such riches. Rose’s evaluative responses to the books don’t actually occupy a huge amount of The Shelf, although she is very funny about the books she thinks ridiculous (‘Hands down the worst book on the shelf is Le Queux’s Three Knots, a mystery that reads as if it were written by a eight-year-old on Percocet’) and also (which is far more difficult) winningly enthusiastic about those she loves. But The Shelf uses those books as the bases for talking about books in general; for talking about the process of reading, and how one engages with characters and an author’s intention.
This leads into separate discussions about the role of libraries, translation, the evolution of detective fiction, women writers etc. She brings out thought-provoking points like this, in a section on false categorizing…
There’s a way of suppressing respect for women writers that Joanna Russ didn’t mention, unless I have not understood her categories and this is somehow included. It is pointing to the woman writer and accusing her of privilege. What shall we call this? False populism? It’s bait-and-switch class warfare in which women, who might well be considered a class in themselves, are attacked for belonging to the middle-class – or, heaven save us, the upper class – by male critics who are themselves usually middle-class but speak as though they were working a twelve-hour shift in a steel mill. The woman writer enjoys a privilege that offends them. Her focus on family and relationships seems trivial. Her way of getting at truth seems indirect and banal. Her feel for the specific detail verges on an obsession with brands.
And more witty musings, like the following (which I could hardly not quote, could I?):
How do the British do it? They manage to be so deep and so funny at the same time. It’s as though they’ve all been taught to take the most extreme position possible and assume that that’s the standard, the received wisdom, and then to introduce the true and ordinary as a revelation. They begin with the high-flown what-ought-to-be and puncture that with the deflating edginess of what is.
But I think what I mostly love about The Shelf is Rose’s style and genuine love for literature. Like many of the bloggers I love most, she meanders from topic to topic, one thing reminding her of another, being brazenly honest about the things she loves and loathes in literature and life (if you’ll forgive that much alliteration). It is all so much more compelling than a series of critical reviews would have been; life is there. The more I think about it, the more it feels like the most engaging reflection on a blog project ever.
And what of the books themselves? They are the bulk of The Shelf, even if not in a literary criticism sort of way. and I have neglected to write about them much. Well, that’s because they could have been any selection, really, and The Shelf would be equally fascinating. We discover that Rose loves Rhoda Lerman’s work and hates William Le Queux’s – but it is much more interesting to see her track Lerman down and compare lives, or to wonder at Lerman prizing most the work that Rose considers her failure.
I want to read Baron Bagge and Count Luna by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, after hearing Rose’s response to it, but I was equally fascinated by her unexpected love for Lesage’s 18th-century enormous work Gil Blas, which I haven’t the smallest intention of reading.
Mostly, I was left wanting to read more by Phyllis Rose – which, before the end of my holiday, I had. But more on that another day. For now – bibliophiles, I feel sure you will love The Shelf. Please track down a copy. At the very least, there’s a pile in the basement of Politics & Prose.