Phyllis Rose, after a career of reading from syllabuses and writing about canonical books, decided to read like an explorer. She "wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature." Casting herself into the untracked wilderness of the New York Society Library's stacks, she chose a shelf of fiction almost at random and read her way through it. Unsure of what she would find, she was nonetheless certain "that no one in the history of the world had read exactly this series of novels."
What results is a spirited experiment in "Off-Road or Extreme Reading." Rose's shelf of roughly thirty books has everything she could wish for―a remarkable variety of authors and a range of literary ambitions and 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 tales about aristocratic Austrians. California detective novels abut a novel from an Afrikaans writer who fascinates Rose to the extent that she ends up watching a YouTube video of his funeral.
Curious about the life of writers across a broad spectrum of time and space, with a keen interest in the challenges for literary women, Rose occasionally follows her reading with personal encounters. One of her favorite discoveries is the contemporary American novelist Rhoda Lerman, in whom she believes that she has found an unrecognized Grace Paley―"another funny feminist humane earth-mother Jewish writer." But Lerman, who becomes a friend, turns out to be not "another" anything: in addition to writing she now raises prizewinning Newfoundlands and "talks of champion canines with the reverence I reserve for Alice Munro."
A joyous testament to the thrill of engagement with books high and low, The Shelf leaves us with the feeling that there are treasures to be found on every library or bookstore shelf. Rose investigates her own discoveries with exuberance, candor, and wit while exploring and relishing the centripetal nature of reading in the Internet age. Measuring her finds against her own inner shelf―those texts that accompany her through life―she creates an original and generous portrait of the literary enterprise.
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Phyllis Rose is the author of A Woman of Letters: The Life of Virginia Woolf; Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages; Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time; The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time; and two collections of essays.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE EXPERIMENT BEGINS
This book records the history of an experiment. Believing that literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical—that is, writers chosen for us by others—I wanted 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 about the experience as I went. I had no reason to believe that the books would be worth the time I would spend on them. They could be dull, even lethally so. I was certain, however, that no one in the history of the world had read exactly this series of novels. That made the project exciting to me.
I thought of my adventure as Off-Road or Extreme Reading. To go where no one had gone before. To ski fresh powder in the backcountry of the Rockies. To hack through a Mexican jungle and discover a lost city. To be the first to cross Antarctica, reduced to eating the sled dogs, leading my men through the frozen wastes, across the Strait of Magellan, and over the treacherous mountains of South Georgia Island. To be the first. However, I like to sleep under a quilt with my head on a goose down pillow. So 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 or Pulitzer Prizes, no ads, no publicity, not even word of mouth to guide me. In the fifteenth century, Poggio Bracciolini, a Vatican secretary, spent his leisure time combing monastery libraries for texts of antiquity. He located them, copied them in his own beautiful hand or caused them to be copied, and made them known to other humanists. I read about Poggio in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, and I envied that Renaissance geezer. I would have loved to spend weeks going through unexamined scrolls and codexes and to stumble upon Lucretius’s masterpiece, De Rerum Natura, which no one had read in fifteen hundred years. This was my kind of exploration.
Usually we choose our reading from a preselected list of books, compiled by reviewers, awards panels, librarians, teachers, and professors, and these reading lists are remarkably resistant to change. Occasionally an intellectual movement comes along, feminism for one, that opens up our sense of what is major and what is minor, enlarging the pool of books read, but this does not happen often. And then the upstarts themselves have a way of becoming canonical, unquestioned, and a new generation considers Mrs. Dalloway or The Harder They Come essential reading. What about all those books that are never read at all, never even considered? Who speaks for them? Arbitrary choice is the most radical response to conventional judgment. Let me, I thought, if only for a change, choose my reading almost blindly. Who knows what I will find?
Not all my friends saw the potential of this idea. How many books were on a shelf? Maybe thirty. How many writers? Maybe ten. “So you will write about ten randomly chosen unknown writers?” they said, smiling with feigned enthusiasm. “No,” I replied. “Something more organic. It will be more like a travel journal.” “But you’re going to discover a great writer who lived in obscurity without the recognition he or she deserved, right?” Well, maybe, but that wasn’t the point.
My generation was shaped by an approach to literature that began with the Romantics, was codified by Matthew Arnold, and reached its peak through a broad group of critics that included Lionel Trilling and F. R. Leavis. It believed that literature was an instrument of moral education. It imbued literature with depth and urgency, what we did not hesitate, as late as the 1960s, to call relevance to life. It believed that novelists and poets were special beings, “unacknowledged legislators,” people who taught and enlarged us. Through them we might investigate every important issue. No matter what future you imagined for yourself—as a doctor, a lawyer, a banker, a cabaret singer—engaging with literary texts in your student days would benefit you. Therefore, for a while, the study of literature moved to the center of the liberal arts curriculum. Many of us became “English majors.”
This approach had flaws, of course. It always risked becoming moralistic, and it elevated certain writers over others, writers whose works were considered especially meaningful. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, a reaction had set in. Any attempt to justify literature as giving the reader something became suspect. We had known for a long time not to seek a simple message in literature. But under the influence of French criticism, we were led to believe that there was nothing there at all. Everything we thought we saw in fiction, we ourselves brought to the text. A text was a culturally produced set of markers, no more, and the author’s role in producing the text was very small. Nothing could be more ridiculous than to discuss what he or she was trying to say. That nothing lay at the heart of the literary experience—no author-intended meaning or even set of concerns—was, temporarily, refreshing.
We English majors, despite our military epithet, never understood that we had to fight for the literature we so much enjoyed. Its study seemed so well-entrenched, we took it for granted. When the Trojan horse arrived, in the form of clever, infinitely sophisticated professors of literature from France, we accepted their delicious gifts of irony, novelty, and nihilism and did not see the danger. Now, a generation later, the edifice that took a hundred years to put in place, and that spread a kind of enlightenment over America, is gone. We have to do all over again the work of proving that there is any point to reading a novel besides making time pass more quickly. This book is my way of making amends for not fighting when I should have. I thought the problem would go away if I waited, and eventually it did. But, as with a tsunami engulfing a city, when the waters receded, the city was gone.
* * *
My project began with a storm. The entire Northeast was about to be hit by Hurricane Irene, which was expected to be historically destructive. I was vacationing in a rented house on Martha’s Vineyard as we all waited, terrified, fearing we would be washed out to sea as people were by the hurricane of 1938. I searched my landlord’s collection of books for appropriate reading and found it in The Last Voyage of Columbus by Martin Dugard.
Columbus was trying to locate the western passage to India when he arrived in the Caribbean on his fourth and last voyage. Superb seaman that he was, he sensed an extraordinary storm in the offing. He sought shelter in the harbor of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, but the governor, jealous of Columbus, found a reason not to let him bring his ships in. Columbus begged the governor to detain the treasure fleet that was about to set sail for Spain, but the governor would not do that either. Denied shelter in the harbor, Columbus led his ships northwest to relative safety and rode out the storm. The treasure fleet headed northeast, into the path of the hurricane, and no one survived.
This was perfect reading for a tense moment. As I was definitely on Columbus’s side, I knew I would be safe. And so I was. Irene passed, doing no harm to New York or the Vineyard, though much to inland parts of New England. I was able to return to New York City, where I would spend the rest of the summer.
Two weeks after my return, hurricanes were still on my mind. The papers were still filled with hurricane news. I went to my local library to find Hurricane, a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, recommended by a friend who knew I shared her enthusiasm for Nordhoff and Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty. My friend and her husband, dedicated readers, had set out to read everything Nordhoff and Hall had written and so had discovered Hurricane. I found the volume in the stacks, experiencing that rush you get when you find the title you want, and put it in my tote bag to check out. But at the same moment, I realized I had no desire to read it. I had had enough of hurricanes.
What, then, should I read? I was surrounded by thousands of books, but I had no reason to head toward one letter of the alphabet rather than another.
The library was the New York Society Library on East Seventy-ninth Street in New York, a magnificent lending library where one can browse in the stacks and take several books home to read at a time. Only members can check out books, but anyone can use the reference room and can become a member by paying a fee, currently $225 per year for one person or $275 for a household. This is the oldest library in New York, in existence since 1754, founded by a group of young men who believed that a library would help the city prosper. They called themselves the New York Society. To belong to the library is to join a self-selected family of readers stretching back to the Founding Fathers. George Washington borrowed books from this library—and, some say, failed to return them. Later, Thoreau and Audubon, among others, roamed its hospitable stacks. Later still, Truman Capote and Willa Cather both used the library and became friends as a result. Originally in the Wall Street area, it moved uptown over the years, first to Leonard Street and Broadway, then to University Place off Union Square, and then, in 1937, to its current location on Seventy-ninth Street just off Madison Avenue, where it has become, with the 92nd Street Y, the greatest center of literary activity on the Upper East Side.
The building had been a private home, built in 1917 for the John S. Rogers family. The mansion was extensively reconfigured to become a library, but many of the original features survive—the stately Renaissance Revival limestone façade, the elegant stone staircase to the second floor, the coffered ceilings, the carved wooden arches. These give the building an aura of privilege and of Gilded Age splendor. At the back there are twelve floors of stacks to hold the collections and at the front, on the second floor, a gracious, light-filled room where a member can sit in a comfortable chair and read in quiet. From the moment the massive street doors open for me and I ascend the entrance stairs with their polished brass banister, I feel privileged. I have entered Edith Wharton’s New York—a grandfather clock opposite the checkout desk in the lobby, ancestors’ portraits in the stairwell. The Old Ones believed in dignifying the life of the mind with marble, murals, and mahogany, creating such grand spaces as the Widener Library at Harvard, the New York Public Library, and, on a more intimate scale, this jewel on Seventy-ninth Street. It may be the cheapest luxury in New York.
I was still standing in front of the books by Nordhoff and Hall, of which there was a huge number. As I looked around—and this was only one of two floors in the stacks holding fiction—I saw many long runs of books by one author. It was disconcerting. Often, I knew authors by only one book, as I had known Nordhoff and Hall by Mutiny on the Bounty. But each writer had spent a lifetime writing. What were the other books like? Who were all these scribblers whose work filled the shelves? Did they find their lives as writers rewarding? Who reads their work now? Are we missing out? I wonder if, at some point, all readers have the desire that I had then to consume everything in the library, but it is a desire no sooner formulated than felt to be impossible. One shelf, however, might be read, a part to stand for the whole. Even that would take time and perseverance.
Thus I came to the idea of choosing a shelf at random and reading my way through it to find what I would find. I suppose my friend’s gallant and reckless gesture of reading everything by Nordhoff and Hall was in my mind. But the moment I had this idea I realized that wholly random would not do. If I whirled around and pointed to a shelf, it might be the shelf containing Nordhoff and Hall, which would contain little but Nordhoff and Hall—or, if I moved down a few shelves, Kathleen Norris. So I created a rule: I would not read a shelf that contained more than four books by one author. This eliminated many shelves because writers, if they have any success, are unlikely to stop with four books. The shelves were filled with the work of writers who had published dozens: Stuart Woods, Sinclair Lewis, Louis L’Amour, to say nothing of Trollope, Dickens, and Walter Scott. The inner stacks in the New York Society Library are nine shelves high, with eighteen of them per floor, six shelves wide, making 972 shelves on each floor. The outer walls have another 277 shelves. I sampled dozens without finding a shelf that held fewer than four books by one author. So I revised my rule. There had to be several authors represented on the shelf, and only one could have more than five books. Of those five I had to commit myself to reading only three. In addition, there had to be a mix of contemporary and older works, and one book had to be a classic I had not read and wanted to.
This mixture, too, was surprisingly difficult to find. Sometimes a shelf caught my eye, seeming, at first, varied and nicely balanced, but as I made my way from left to right, I found myself facing the monumental oeuvre of some vastly successful author of a century ago. Or I found a nicely balanced shelf, but there was no classic. Many shelves were filled with the popular entertainments, especially the detective stories, of another age. As for the entertainments of today, I had already read the ones I cared to. I had read almost every Elmore Leonard, Sarah Paretsky, and Alexander McCall Smith. This experiment was not about my learning to love Jodi Picoult or Danielle Steel, worthy as these writers may be.
As I surveyed shelf after shelf, I had to formulate other rules—for example, I could choose no shelf that contained work by someone I knew. This was occasioned by a tempting W shelf that held five novels of Katharine Weber, who is a friend of mine and who is not, to my mind, widely enough known. It would give me the greatest pleasure to write about her work and explain its many virtues. But that would bias the project and also make me watch what I was saying more than I wanted to. So, no friends.
At last, after looking at perhaps two hundred shelves out of some thirteen hundred on this floor of the stacks (remember that fiction continues onto a second floor) I found a classic that I had not read and wanted to—Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. This seminal work in the history of the Russian novel, which I had managed to live my life without reading, shared a shelf with another book I had heard of as an English major but never read, Gil Blas, the granddaddy of picaresque fiction. There were also works by a writer called James LeRossignol, whose name intrigued me, and two books by an immensely prolific writer named William Le Queux, which had spilled over from a previous shelf and gave me the chance to sample this evidently popular Edwardian novelist. 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.
I was hoping I had found the goal of my quest. But as I moved right, tracking titles with my finger, I came to a big block of books by the same author, old books in purple bindings with gold stamping. The author was Gaston Leroux, and one of his books was The Phantom of the Opera, but there were many, many others. To add to the problem, I coul...
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