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The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading

por Phyllis Rose

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2311491,125 (3.67)21
"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"--… (mais)
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Phyllis Rose, a literary critic, found herself thinking about how many books -- surely including many very good books -- are never paid any attention by critics and are unfairly doomed to obscurity. Almost on a whim, she decided on a project to explore this wider world of literature, at least a little bit: she chose a single shelf from a library and (mostly) read every book on that shelf, no matter what it was. (It's worth noting that the library was a private lending library, and the shelf was carefully chosen, so this isn't a scientific random sampling or anything, but that's not really the point.) She ended up reading an interesting variety of fiction, some more obscure than others, from an 18th century picaresque tome to contemporary women's fiction.

This sounds very much like the sort of thing that's likely to appeal to me, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Rose thinks very deeply about everything she reads, but the way she writes about those thoughts is wonderfully accessible. And she really goes above and beyond with this project, exploring the works she reads thoroughly, doing research on them, even sometimes contacting (and, in one case, striking up an odd friendship with) the authors. You'd think all of that might get a little tedious, actually, or that listening to someone talk about books you've never read (and, for the most part, have no desire to read) would get dull after a while, but it never does. I now sort of feel as if all these books are old friends of mine, and maybe Phyllis Rose is, too. The whole thing just made me one happy little book-lover. ( )
1 vote bragan | Feb 5, 2019 |
Rose chose a shelf of (ironically) fiction books in her library and read each of them, reporting on her progress, the history behind the books, and other literary tidbits. Quite enjoyable. ( )
  ParadisePorch | Sep 19, 2018 |
Displays exactly what I dislike about book reviews Phyllis Rose (the author) decides she will read one shelf of book at random at the New York Society Library and read them all. She read the entire shelf and examined what she found, both in terms of the texts themselves, but the authors and their lives, their place in history, etc.
 
Honestly, this was dreadful. The author has an air of pretentiousness and snobbiness that is what I hate about book reviews. She seems to get bogged down in the minutae of the books, their histories, the authors, the book design, etc. Some of it is quite interesting, but sometimes I felt she was really going into the weeds and made it inaccessible for a casual reader.
 
Apparently this is a book loved by professional, paid book reviewers, and I think I can see why. It's a book written for that audience (how many people can afford or even want to pay a yearly fee to be able to check out books at a library like the NYSL??).
 
The author has some interesting thoughts about women in literature, but again, her style of writing really got in the way. I definitely don't recommend this one. I love books about books, reading and bookstores, but there are far better books out there. Might be good if you're aspiring to be a professional book reviewer or are familiar with any of the books she read. Otherwise, I'd skip this one. ( )
  HoldMyBook | Feb 11, 2018 |
This was a fun book to read, but my TBR list has grown alarmingly and may be pushing 400 now just on goodreads. That is, however, a danger of reading a book about reading books. Austrian authors I've never heard of? Authors that Phyllis Rose cites as the 'good' ones she really enjoys? Add them all to the list! Actually not all the Austrian authors are on goodreads, and I am still a bit baffled as to why Ingeborg Bachmann, whos book The Thirtieth Year I enjoyed very much in college, doesn't come up in search results for her name, but does appear under the link from her book's page on here ([b:The Thirtieth Year: Stories (Modern German Voices Series): Stories by Ingeborg Bachmann|265993|The Thirtieth Year Stories (Modern German Voices Series) Stories by Ingeborg Bachmann|Ingeborg Bachmann|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1356464622s/265993.jpg|257881]). I am in the second month of a project to read my local branch public library from A to Z, or at least the adult fiction, YA fiction and adult nonfiction, so Phyllis Rose's book was a nice sanction on my project, which especially without an income attached, seems insane to many of my friends and family. But, just as Phyllis Rose found her tiny slice of her library rewarding, with lots of books and authors she would never have read otherwise, my exploration has been quite rewarding already. It's obviously not something I did because of reading Phyllis Rose's project, but reading her book was a lot like chatting with a friend whose approach to reading mirrors my own.

I also found her chapter on women authors and feminism quite engaging. In fact, I finally added a gender column to my reading spreadsheet after reading this chapter. I found that I read female authors in clumps, and otherwise most of my reading is of male authors, or Andre Norton books. Take out Andre Norton and I suppose my stats are closer to 20% female authors for this year, out of ~140 books, which is pretty bad. Maybe I'll take the suggestion mentioned in Rose's chapter and alternate male and female authors for a while. I may not read another book about reading books for a while- my TBR list needs time to recover- but this one was fun and influential, even if it may take a while for me to reach the Leq-Les segment of our library. ( )
  JBarringer | Dec 30, 2017 |
My 3.5 stars is a little bit misleading; this is a very well written, really interesting collection of literary criticism and based on that I'd recommend it highly.

But I dinged it a full star because the stated premise of the book is that Rose chooses a shelf at her library and vows to read all of what's on it, for better or worse. This is what I wanted to read about; I was in awe of the bravery I saw in choosing to read a random shelf of books and I expected to share that experience with her.

Right from the start my enthusiasm dimmed; she started creating rules, and coming up with caveats. I'll concede that some of them made sense: she had to choose a shelf that didn't contain all the work of one or two very prolific authors. Of course, that makes sense. But some of her 'rules' felt like she was gaming the system: they had to have a mix of contemporary and classic and had to contain one classic she's always wanted to read. I started to feel this project was rather less random and therefore the outcome more controlled.

Then she mentions at the start of chapter 4 that she isn't going to include any of the books that she didn't enjoy, asking "what was in it for either of us, me or you?". Um, well, quite a lot actually. I'm not asking that Rose tear a strip off the authors' of books she didn't like, but if you're going to do a project, do it properly. To only include the ones she liked is to do the job half-assed.

Midway through chapter 5 I almost stopped reading entirely because she goes completely off the reservation and stars discussing feminism and the bias against female authors. She makes very good points, does so rationally and thoughtfully and backs up those points with pertinent examples. She sells it.

Unfortunately that's not what I was buying when I bought this book. I signed up for a shelf reading project and I very much didn't appreciate the diversion. If I'd wanted to read about the bad rap women are getting in publishing and in literary criticism, I'd have bought that book, not this one. Additionally as fascinating as I found chapter 8 on how libraries deaccession books (and I did, truly, find it fascinating), it was completely off-topic to the matter at hand.

Once I adjusted my expectations and accepted that this was only sort of the project that inspired my awe, I could better appreciate what she was writing. When she did discuss the books she read, she did it in a way that made me feel like I experienced the spirit of the book itself. I wasn't going to get what I wanted but I did enjoy what I got.

I recommend it to anyone who enjoys literary criticism; so long as you go into it with the knowledge that the author's project is a loose construct for the book itself, it's a winner. ( )
  murderbydeath | Dec 31, 2016 |
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"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"--

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