The Shelf by Phyllis Rose

The ShelfWell, 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.


20 thoughts on “The Shelf by Phyllis Rose

  • April 30, 2015 at 6:51 am

    It sounds wonderful – just my sort of book. But it’s a bit of a distance to Washington DC!

    • April 30, 2015 at 9:26 pm

      It is a BIT, yes! But I’m sure you can find it on this side of the pond somewhere :)

  • April 30, 2015 at 9:07 am

    I love the idea of extreme reading – you make this book sound really delightful and I shall definitely see if I can track down a copy somewhere. It has also seeded the germ of an idea in my brain for a reading project for my blog… watch that space!

    • April 30, 2015 at 9:26 pm

      Oo, that is very exciting, Annabel! I’m looking forward to seeing what materialises…

  • April 30, 2015 at 9:12 am

    Glad to hear you’ve settled into WordPress, Simon! I’d read about this book before and thought it would be one which might appeal to me. And had you never heard of Lermontov before? :) I love the idea of taking a random selection of books and seeing whether I’d like them – if only there was infinite reading time….

    • April 30, 2015 at 9:28 pm

      I thought you might be a fan of Lermontov! Rose actually reads three or four different translations of his book, including an extremely bizarre-sounding one by Nabokov.

      I was quite tempted to do this with a shelf of my own books, so at least I’d know that I wanted to read them…

  • April 30, 2015 at 10:57 am

    Did she commit to finishing all the books? Taking on a project like that has zero appeal to me, though it does sound like a great blogging challenge! But I definitely want to read about it, so I will be looking for a copy.

    • April 30, 2015 at 9:29 pm

      More or less – she decided she wouldn’t read more than 3 books by any single author, and wouldn’t pick a shelf that had more than 5 books by any single author, so I think she did all but a couple on the shelf. And she read plenty of other things in between. But, yes, I can see where you’re coming from. And I do hope you find a copy – let me know what you think!

  • April 30, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    I’ll have to keep an eye out for this one. So what does happen when you reach the 50th book? Do you start a “second 50 must reads” or just change the 50 to a different number, or do you start replacing titles? Just curious…50 across a lifetime seems like too small a number. :)

    • April 30, 2015 at 9:30 pm

      I have long been wondering this myself, Susan! And the answer is… I don’t really know.

  • April 30, 2015 at 9:50 pm

    *adds to library list* I’ve read 3 of the authors in the list, and I must admit to being terribly curious about what she thinks of Lermontov. I had to spend far too much time with A Hero of Our Time for one of my Russian courses. *shudder*

    • April 30, 2015 at 10:58 pm

      Oo, this would be perfect for you then, Eva! (And you make me feel shamefully ill-read – I wonder which 3 you’ve read?) Rose has an interesting experience with Lermontov, reading three or four different translations of A Hero of Our Time, at the beginning and end of her project.

  • May 1, 2015 at 7:48 am

    I tried to read the library from start to finish once, but got stuck on the second shelf of As when I must have got lots by the same author! So this would be an interesting book to read – will add it to my wishlist. Glad you’re settling into WordPress OK, not sure why my avatar isn’t showing up but it’s a lot easier to comment now!

    • May 5, 2015 at 10:14 pm

      Haha! A very brave attempt… reminds me of a Virginia Woolf story where someone has to read the whole of the British Library to get her inheritance.

  • May 1, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    I don’t know whether I would pick a random shelf and read everything on it just because I already have too many books and panic that I won’t get through it all, however, I do love reading about other people’s reading experiences. This sounds great. Saying that, I do love going to the library or bookshop and picking up a title or author I’d never heard of before. You just never know what you might come across.

    • May 5, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      I would definitely panic! But, like you, love reading about other people’s projects.

      The one thing I miss from my early days of discovering my own reading taste was the opportunities to pick books up at random and immediately read them. I still buy books at random, but they tend to get lost on the shelf…

  • May 1, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    I am sure I would like this book; what a clever approach to finding books, using a shelf.

    • May 5, 2015 at 10:16 pm

      I hope you manage to track down a copy!

  • May 2, 2015 at 12:04 am

    I was already interested in this book based on your discussion with Thomas on The Readers podcast and when I googled it just now, I realized I already had Rose’s book Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages on my shelf to read (based on a recommendation from LitLove’s blog). I will look into getting a copy of The Shelf as well. It sounds like a lot of fun and I love books about books.

    • May 5, 2015 at 10:16 pm

      Do grab a copy, Ruthiella! You’ll love it.
      I actually left copies of Victorian Marriages in the US, thinking it might not be my cup of tea. What a fool I was!

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