21 July, 2014

Book Review: The Shelf

From Goodreads: Phyllis Rose embarks on a grand literary experiment—to read her way through a random shelf of library books, LEQ–LES
Can 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 LES.
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....