Non-Fiction November: ‘The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading’ by Phyllis Rose ****

As many of my reviews proclaim, this particular book has been one I’ve wanted to read for years. I have had no luck tracking down Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading in three local library systems, and have never seen a copy in a new bookshop, so I decided to purchase a relatively inexpensive secondhand copy to settle down with – at last.

Rose has written a lot of non-fiction titles which interest me, and she also edits the Norton Book of Women’s Lives. Her reading career, she tells us early on, has been spent chasing tomes from different syllabuses. Here, however, she decided to embark on a project which was a little different, deciding to ‘read like an explorer’. She chose the New York Society Library, of which she is a member, and selected a shelf of fiction – authors LEQ to LES – which met her rather strict guidelines. She then read her way through it, in no particular order as she wished to give herself ‘complete freedom’. The Shelf details her experience.

Rose wanted to steer a course away from the usual ways in which readers find their next books; her intention here was to ‘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 or Pulitzer Prizes, no ads, no publicity, not even word of mouth to guide me.’ She goes on to say: ‘Let me, I thought, if only for a change, choose my reading almost blindly. Who knows what I will find?’

The guidelines which Rose set herself made it relatively difficult to locate a single shelf from which to read. She perused almost 200 of them before she found one which fit her criteria. On reflection, she notes: ‘Visually, the shelf I had focused on was a pleasing mix of old-style bindings, gold-stamped library-bound hardcovers, and modern books whose colorful jackets were wrapped in Mylar.’

As one would expect, what Rose found from her shelf was incredibly varied in topic and author. She selected her shelf based on a classic which she had never read but wanted to – Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (my review of which can be found here). Her project introduced her to books about French Canadian farmers, upper-class Austrians, and detectives working in California.

Rose reflects: ‘The first thing I learned from my experiment – aside from the weakness of my will or, by the same token, the strength of my impulse toward enjoyment – was that in the age of the Internet, it is very hard to stick with a book without consulting an outside source. Reading is more centrifugal than it used to be.’ She also notes that prefaces can irrevocably alter the reading experience; specifically for her, this revolves around Vladimir Nabokov’s introduction to Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which robbed her of any excitement, and added diverting, and sometimes unnecessary, comments to the reading experience.

One of the most interesting elements of The Shelf, aside from the general idea behind it, are the varied differences which Rose writes about between differing translations of the same book. During her project, she came to three versions of A Hero of Our Time, one of which she did not enjoy, and one of which thrilled her. Throughout, Rose wonders about and researches the authors and books on her shelf, many of which are new to her. She even strikes up a couple of friendships with contemporary women authors.

I really like the central idea in The Shelf, and it is one which I would love to personally replicate – although with only a local library branch at my disposal, I’m not sure I would come across an entire shelf which fully interested me. The chances of reading mainly bestsellers and popular fiction in a local library setting would, of course, be far higher than Rose encountered in her private library, which has been in existence in New York since 1754. Regardless, The Shelf was an incredibly enjoyable, and rather fresh experiment, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Rose’s crisp prose, and the curiosity which she displays at all times, balanced the whole wonderfully.

5 thoughts on “Non-Fiction November: ‘The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading’ by Phyllis Rose ****

    • I had a quick look at my local library last week, and there was far too much of the likes of Nadine Dorries and those ‘A Girlhood in Merseyside’-type books for this to be even a feasible idea.

  1. Sounds to be a mix of deliberate choice and randomness, but the limitations of having just one shelf to read from is certainly challenging, and not one I’d relish. Actually what struck me immediately was that it could be the plot of a speculative thriller: the protagonist has to read through all the books on a certain shelf to find the answer to a vital but very specific question…

    A shame Rose’s determination to read each title cover to cover meant the Nabokov introduction “robbed her of any excitement, and added diverting, and sometimes unnecessary, comments to the reading experience.” I really do think most introductions should be banished to the end of a text (‘extraductions’ perhaps?) to avoid the reader’s enjoyment being ruined by potential spoilers or one’s reception of it being prejudiced by a critic’s assessment.

    • That’s a fantastic idea for a thriller; I love it, and sincerely hope that you will get time to pen that clear masterpiece. I completely agree with your comment about introductions; I’ve lost count of the number of introductions which I’ve begun in good faith, and which have given enormous parts of the plot away. I do find myself skipping them more and more nowadays, and only occasionally come back to them once I’ve finished reading.

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