ATG Book of the Week: The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading

the ShelfTitle: The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading
Author:
Phyllis Rose
Hardcover: ISBN: 978-0374261207, $26
Imprint: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

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

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Literary critic and biographer Rose, author of The Year of Reading Proust (1997), takes us on another mind-revving reading escapade. This time she designed a literary expedition in which she read each and every book found on a shelf in the fiction section of the venerable New York Society Library, recording her adventures in “Extreme Reading” in a richly entertaining and enlightening chronicle. Among the many titles on her century-spanning, literarily diverse library shelf are the Russian classic, The Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov; Alain Le Sage’s early eighteenth-century picaresque novel, Gil Blas; several books by Gaston Leroux, including The Phantom of the Opera; detective novels by the Edwardian novelist William Le Queux and today’s John Lescroart, and the canny and funny novels of Rhoda Lerman. Each book is a catalyst for provocative inquiries, inspiring Rose to consider the crucial truths gleaned from fiction, the lives of writers, the status of women writers past and present, the distinctions (or lack thereof) between popular and literary fiction, how libraries acquire and “weed” books, the value of reviews and literary criticism, and the many joys of reading in the digital age. A seasoned, open-minded, and passionate reader, inquisitive thinker, and delectably lucid and witty writer, Rose rallies readers to affirm our love of literature and libraries. –Donna Seaman

More Reviews

“If the world’s greatest librarian held hands with the greatest English teacher you ever had and they led you into the middle of the Forest of Literature, Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf would be right there, waiting for you. The Shelf is an exceptional, goofy, erudite, deeply thoughtful, and completely enchanting foray into the world of books. As Grace Paley said in another context, you’ll learn something.” —Amy Bloom, author of Away

“Phyllis Rose calls her irresistibly charming journey through the LEQ–LES shelf an experiment in Off-Road Reading. But the lesson I drew from it was that no matter what bookish road you take, whether it’s a superhighway or a bumpy track that requires the literary equivalent of four-wheel drive, you’re bound to enjoy the scenery if you’re as interesting a reader as Rose.” —Anne Fadiman, author ofEx Libris and At Large and At Small

“In her brilliant and original The Shelf, Phyllis Rose proves how much you can learn about yourself and the world just by reading any book you come across and thinking seriously about it.” —Alison Lurie, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Foreign Affairs

The Shelf is a surprising and wonderful book—a magnificent treat!” —Alexander McCall Smith, author of TheNo. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series
“It’s always a pleasure to read Phyllis Rose. She ignites our imagination with her own intellectual curiosity, encouraging us to read widely and take chances.” —Judy Blume, author of Summer Sisters

“Exhilarating, adventurous, original—Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf is a reminder of what reading and writing are all about.” —Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran
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