From Goodreads: Phyllis Rose embarks on a grand literary experiment—to read her way through a random shelf of library books, LEQ–LES
you have an Extreme Adventure in a library? Phyllis Rose casts herself
into the wilds of an Upper East Side lending library in an effort to do
just that. Hoping to explore the “real ground of literature,” she reads
her way through a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to
The shelf has everything Rose could wish for—a classic she
has not read, a remarkable variety of authors, and a range of literary
styles. The early nineteenth-century Russian classic A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov is spine by spine with The Phantom of the Opera
by Gaston Leroux. Stories of French Canadian farmers sit beside those
about aristocratic Austrians. California detective novels abut a
picaresque novel from the seventeenth century. There are several novels
by a wonderful, funny, contemporary novelist who has turned to raising
dogs because of the tepid response to her work.
In The Shelf,
Rose investigates the books on her shelf with exuberance, candor, and
wit while pondering the many questions her experiment raises and
measuring her discoveries against her own inner shelf—those texts that
accompany us through life. “Fairly sure that no one in the history of
the world has read exactly this series of novels,” she sustains a sense
of excitement as she creates a refreshingly original and generous
portrait of the literary enterprise.
Thoughts: The idea of this book appealed to me as I have often looked at a library full of books and wondered if you could systematically read the whole thing. Logic tells me no, but it could be rather fun to try! Phyllis Rose didn't attempt to read a whole library, but she did aim to read a whole shelf. The choosing of the shelf was not completely random, she did come up with a few guidelines to help her choose which of the 1249 fiction shelves in the New York Society Library she would read. The guidelines included the shelf having to include a classic, having no more than 5 books by one author (of which she would only have to read 3) and a mix of contemporary and older works.
Rose's exploration of her shelf turned up some wonderful works for her. She fully explores not only the book, but the author, at times contacting the author to discover more of their story. You could look at each of the eleven chapters as separate essays, tied together by the shelf. Her analysis of the effects of different translations of one book was fascinating, as was her look at women in fiction and the amazingly complex world of weeding or deaccessioning in a library.
The Shelf won't be for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. I fought hard to limit the number of books Rose mentioned making it onto my TBR list, although a few have found their way to it. I will also admit to being awfully tempted to undertake a similar challenge....