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book review

‘The Shelf’ by Phyllis Rose

At first it seems like a gimmick. For her latest book, “The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, Adventures in Extreme Reading,” critic and biographer Phyllis Rose reads her way through one arbitrarily chosen fiction shelf in her neighborhood library, documenting her reactions and responses.

However, the resulting book is immensely appealing. This is in part because Rose’s intentions are so honorable: Believing that “literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical — that is, writers chosen for us by others — [she wants] . . . to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature.” That Rose readily acknowledges the potentially quixotic nature of her enterprise — “not all of my friends saw the potential of this idea” — further endears her to readers.


Rose abandons sheer randomness as the principle organizing her selection of a shelf. Instead, she establishes some reasonable ground rules. First, the shelf must have “a mix of contemporary and older works, and one book had to be a classic I had not read and wanted to.” Second, it needs a balance of female and male authors. And third, only one author can have more than five books, and Rose is only required to read three of those five.

Thus the experiment takes on a quest-like structure: “no one in the history of the world had read exactly this series of novels.” Rose embraces her shelf with “immense tenderness” and dives into its contents with contagious enthusiasm, carrying us along on her “exhilarating” journey.

The books on Rose’s shelf run the gamut from literary classics to pulp fiction to forgotten “hits” of previous eras, and her approach is eclectic and fresh. Rose’s chapters generally track the volumes on the shelf. Chapter Two, “The Myth of the Book: A Hero of Our Time,” discusses how a “seminal work in the history of the Russian novel” by Mikhail Lermontov has been edited, annotated, and canonized; “Literary Evolution: The Phantom of the Opera” considers the way culture appropriates compelling archetypes; “Women and Fiction: A Question of Privilege” ponders why “women novelists are still not where they should be.” She examines once-popular female authors who’ve fallen out of the public eye (even becoming close friends with one), the de-acquisition process at libraries, detective fiction, and concludes by meditating on what confers immortality on a book or a writer. Throughout, Rose is especially insightful on how the paratext (prefaces, footnotes, epigraphs, even jacket covers) shape the reading experience.


Not all the books Rose discusses are good. Many, in fact, are clichéd, overwritten, “dull, even lethally so.” But Rose shows us that there is still worth to be found in them: They exemplify a culturally significant attitude, capture a historical moment, create archetypes with lingering power, unmask our prejudices, body forth an essential yearning or truth.

A former English professor at Wesleyan, Rose writes without a whiff of pretension or dogmatic certainty. She frankly admits her own errors and “make[s] no claim for the universality of [her] standards.” She wants us to be aware of the myriad preconceptions we bring to our reading, the desires and hopes we impose on books and authors. Even as she bemoans the often unfair power of prominent cultural arbiters, Rose underscores the importance of individual readers by reminding us that simply checking a book out of a library, reviewing it favorably on Amazon, or recommending it to a book club can pull it out of “the abyss of unread literature,” change its fate, and prolong its life.


Rose’s “respect for the whole range of the literary enterprise — for writers of all sorts,” her conviction that reading can be an adventure every bit as thrilling, risky, and life-changing as a polar expedition or round-the-world voyage, her characteristic blend of effervescence and contemplativeness make “The Shelf” irresistible.

Although I’m not sure that Rose will bring other readers to the novels she discusses, I’m confident that “The Shelf” will send them “into the stacks of libraries to find favorites of their own and to savor the beauties” of words. And in encouraging us to be more independent thinkers, less swayed by convention and the critical consensus, more empathetic and open-minded, her book teaches us as much about how to approach life as it does about how to read books.

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’