The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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MAY 2014 Issue

How to Browse

Phyllis Rose
The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading
(Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2014)

It’s practically taboo these days to say aloud, or even whisper, what we all know to be true: reading is hard. And it’s not just genre enthusiasts or publishers with dollar signs in their eyes who would make the case for fiction as easy entertainment instead. You don’t have to look far at all to find writers, even highbrow authors, who trumpet the cause of fun reading. Recently, a few critics have attempted to adjust what might be called the “pleasure argument” with adjectives that thread the needle between task and titillation. Harold Bloom gave us “difficult pleasure.” Wendy Lesser tried “serious pleasure.” And Phyllis Rose, in her first book since the charming, disarming and thoughtful The Year of Reading Proust, offers “complex pleasure,” though that comes relatively late, and is perhaps less interesting than the “extreme reading” of her subtitle.

Which is worth meditating on for a moment. Extreme reading in The Shelf means the “self-imposed task” of reading an entire library shelf selected “somewhat at random.” Rose means “extreme” in the sense of rugged trailblazing, but the allusion of course is to extreme sports—you know, dangerous stunts with bicycles, skateboards, snowmobiles, and bungee cords.

A little introspection undermines that “extreme,” however. Extreme sports were popularized with the X-Games, which was itself an allusion to the Olympic Games, which can be pretty extreme themselves in that they so often derive from violence—you know, wrestling, javelin, hammer throw, discus, archery, and all those games with guns. Indeed, it’s not much of an exaggeration to suggest that the Olympic Games are often about prowess in activities that derive from attempts to injure other people, whereas the X-Games are about prowess in activities that can result in injury only to oneself. So which is more extreme? In the context of Rose’s book, however, a different distinction is perhaps more important: the Olympic Games might be said to be about the kinds of activities that exceptional human beings engage in as a function of national hyper-competitiveness, whereas extreme sports are the creative, difficult, and thrilling activities that regular people wind up engaging in when they’ve got a whole lot of time on their hands.

Reading too is a creative, difficult, and occasionally thrilling activity that regular people engage in when they’ve got a whole lot of time on their hands. So Rose’s analogy, whether she means mountain climbing or skateboarding, is perfectly apt, and The Shelf is a more than welcome addition to a growing body of work that seeks to remind us that the pleasure of reading is linked to that which makes it a challenge—that is, hard.

To begin slightly anew, the pleasure argument for reading completely ignores something else we all know to be true: our reading lives are filled with moments in which we are not at all pleased by what we read. Books may bore, annoy, or enrage us. So a reading life is perhaps better described as a search for pleasure, and the quality of that pleasure is partly a function of the duress one endures during those long periods of sifting and dabbling among books that fail to please: finally, something good!

The Shelf begins with an indictment of the literary canon as a shortcut to pleasure. The assumption, I think, is that if “smart people” have found certain books pleasurable, then so should we. As for Rose, her position is that the canon is a list “chosen for us by others,” and she regrets that this list is “resistant to change,” leaving out many “books that are never read at all.” So what should a reader do? “Arbitrary choice is the most radical response to conventional judgment.” The Shelf is a chronicle of a reading experiment based on a forgotten skill: how to browse.

The first order of business is to choose a library. Rose’s pick, the New York Society Library on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is significant in that the library demonstrably tilts its collection toward what often gets called “popular” or “genre” literature, which, for her, marks a new direction. Like The Year of Reading Proust, The Shelf covers about twelve months, but a stray remark Rose makes about Gaston Leroux, whose novel you know even if his name means nothing, reveals the change in her trajectory: “In Search of Lost Time, Proust’s masterpiece, can be viewed in many ways as the polar opposite of The Phantom of the Opera.

But that’s leaping ahead a bit—because first Rose tells the story of wandering the library’s tight, dark stacks, searching not so much for a random shelf as a representative one. She gives herself rules. The shelf must include old and new; men and women; not too many books by any one author and at least one classic, previously unread. It seems she browses for days before settling on LEQ to LES, which gives her William Le Queux, Margaret Leroy, Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, a couple Leroux (Etienne and Gaston), and others. The choice is maybe a bit Franco-heavy, but it’ll do.

Once she starts to read, Rose’s method is hardly systematic (and that’s the point). She does not move from left to right, nor does she finish every book. She gives up on some; others she reads multiple times, and in editions not even found on the shelf. Indeed, the shelf is only a launching pad, like one end of a seesaw that sends you soaring. Rose divides The Shelf into chapters by author—sometimes lumping a couple together—and each is a new adventure, not just into the worlds of the books, but into Rose’s research into every one of them.

“Reading is more centrifugal than it used to be,” Rose writes, and at this I couldn’t help picturing all those extreme sports, so many of which whirl or twirl, generating or relying on centrifugal force. But what I think Rose really means is that reading pushes us out from our centers, from our “inner shelf,” the library of our minds. The Shelf exalts in the many opportunities modern life affords us to supplement our reading by encountering authors (Rose actually befriends two residents of her shelf), by learning their histories, or, as with The Phantom of the Opera, by tracking the evolution of a story as it moves from book to stage. The point is that Rose needed to browse her way down to a single shelf so that she could begin a series of adventures that trot her across the entire globe.

None of these adventures lack drama—including, alas, the drama of not always enjoying the books on the shelf. At one point Rose offers the familiar warning against negative reviews, but you can’t help but hear the malevolent glee she takes in the zingers she occasionally delivers as judgment: “Leroux finished his story long before he expected to and had to pad it out;” “[Le Queux’s Three Knots is] a mystery that reads as if it were written by an eight-year-old on Percocet;” “I had to read one more John Lescroart novel. I wasn’t hungry, but I had to eat.” Even Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which becomes, by the end, one of the three books from the shelf (thirty-two in total) that will go on to “keep [Rose] company through life,” only manages to succeed after having first been harshly treated: “It did not speak to me. It would never make it to that inner shelf of books that affected my life.” Except it does. On rereading the book, Rose makes a discovery: “Why does the Lermontov seem so different from one reading to the next? Texts change with the circumstances of the reader. … At the end of my project I return to it as a friend. Its familiarity is pleasing. … I look forward to experiencing again the unique things it has to offer, happy to be away from sick children and depressive detectives, intractable problems and phony mysteries.” This is the true pleasure of literature.

There are a number of adjectives in this review that will likely set the heart of Rose’s publicist racing with concern: difficult, serious, complex, hard. But worry not, intrepid marketeer! Rose’s exercise in “connoisseurship” is a joy to witness, awesome and exciting in the same manner as all those extreme sports. In fact, one can hardly resist the impulse to picture, just briefly, our genteel and professorial author curling out a perfect Tony Hawk McTwist on a half-pipe, or otherwise performing any of those tricks that delight and impress precisely because it’s apparent how easy it would be to fail.


J. C. Hallman

J.C. Hallman’s most recent book is SAY ANARCHA: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

All Issues