The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 271 pages, $26.
It’s the last two words of the subtitle that grab you first. A titillating concept, that, even in a world which has relished appending the adjective “extreme” to all manner of gerunds from skiing to eating.
What on earth would extreme reading be?
Well, as the much-lauded and acutely well-read critic Phyllis Rose (“Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages”; “Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time”) defines it for us, it is an experiment to “sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature. So I chose a fiction shelf in the New York Society Library somewhat at random – it happens to be the LEQ-LES shelf – and set out to read my way through it, writing of the experience as I went.”
Feature journalism has been full of participatory “I can do that” stories (skydive, ride an elephant, kiss a rattlesnake) for decades. From a highly regarded critic of intellectual deftness and stylistic grace, on the other hand, her essay on “off-road or extreme reading” was indeed something a little new. “I would read my way into the unknown – into the pathless wastes, into thin air, with no reviews, no bestseller lists, no college curricula, no National Book Awards, no Pulitzer Prizes, no ads, no publicity, not even word of mouth to guide me.”
Lest one think that the delightfully arbitrary and American eccentricity of it all obtruded a hair into outright imbalance, Rose’s shelf wasn’t all that “randomly” chosen in fact. Out of 200 possible shelves, she found one “classic that I had not read and wanted to – Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time.’ ”
She built around it.
Once she was off and running, that means everyone “from William LeQueux to John Lescroart by way of Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Margaret Leroy, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James LeRossignol and Alain-Rene LeSage.”
What she learned, she ways, was “respect for the whole range of the literary enterprise.” Her book is a daftly fascinating way to learn it with her.
– Jeff Simon