Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Shelf by Phyllis Rose

Obviously this blog is an extension of my tastes and preferences - how could it be otherwise? It's mostly about books I've read, and I tend to read things that I think I'll enjoy. (I am human; I don't generally want to subject myself to pain.)

But some books are vastly more so, to the level that I feel compelled to point that out. I know I'm at least somewhat idiosyncratic, since we all are - but it's really hard to judge just how weird a person is from their own point of view. 

The record of someone else's quixotic reading project is right up my alley: this is what I'm saying. I've done "Book-A-Day" projects four times in the history of this blog; it's not surprising that I'm interested in oddball similar things from others.

This is one of the many benefits of an arbitrary undertaking. Define what you are supposed to be doing, and you immediately establish a whole range of things you should not be doing. These otherwise ordinary activities are thus transmuted into guilty pleasures, and their value grows correspondingly. (p.213)

I don't remember how I found The Shelf; I bought it seven years ago. I think it might have been on a "new in paperback" shelf, or maybe a "staff picks." The author was familiar: I'd read Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives way back at Vassar, where it was secondary reading for some Victorian-novel course. However it happened, I picked up the book, saw it was the story of a reading project by a writer I respected, and bought it.

And eventually read it.

Rose was interested in the canon - how it's formed, which books get in and which don't, and just what else is still out there, mostly unread, lurking on shelves. [1] So she decided to read all - or at least most - of a single shelf of the New York Society Library. After some haggling with herself about criteria - since she didn't want to, in the worst case, get a shelf that was the middle of one single author - she picked the LEQ to LES shelf, with a couple of dozen books by eleven different authors, including the literarily world-famous (Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time) and the not-quite-as-literary but still world-famous (Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera), spanning from the once-huge (William Le Queux) to the currently-bestselling (John Lescroart), with a lot of quirky specificity in the middle. And she spent a year, roughly 2011 to 2012, reading those books.

The Shelf has eleven chapters; each one tells how she engaged with a book or author or clump of books on that shelf. She started with a thorny 1960s South African novel, One for the Devil by Etienne Leroux:

I thought it was a country-house mystery, a genre familiar to me - and beloved - because of Agatha Christie. But I was wrong. It was Serious Fiction. How did I know? Because nothing made sense. I did not have a clue what the author was going on about. (p.15)

From there, she reads the Lermontov novel in three different translations - if I didn't know she was an academic before that, it would have been plain there - and wanders through the rest of the books as she feels like it. Each chapter is somewhat separate, but they string together in order to tell the story of the whole reading project. I don't know if those eleven chapters actually describe the order she read these books. I rather doubt it, actually: she's too good a writer for that.

What comes across from the beginning is how generous and accommodating Rose is as a reader. She had spent a long career as an academic before The Shelf - she started teaching at Wesleyan the year I was born, and retired in 2005 - and is the kind of reader and instructor who delights in specifics of prose and in finding new things when re-reading the same books every year. She doesn't shy away from making value judgements, but always keeps them particular and personal: some books don't work for her in 2011, or she wished they had done different things. But none of that is ever the book's fault, or the author's, even when the book is objectively bad.

And now we descend into the belly of the beast, the worst novel on the shelf. I don't blame you if you don't want to follow me. You may skip the next four paragraphs. I'll understand. But should you want to know the worst, I feel bound to give you a taste of it. What is a truly awful novel like? It is like a bad dream. Things happen that make no sense and are never explained. The scene shifts abruptly and for no reason. One minute you are finding hotel rooms in Paris for a troop of Boy Scouts, the next you are announcing the Harvard-Yale game, and the next you are begging someone to pour coffee in your watch. Being thrust so quickly from one improbability to another produces a form of motion sickness. (p.224)

She's engaged in all of these books, willing to be the best reader she can possibly be for each of them in turn and ready to describe what they do well or interestingly, but never turns off her critical facilities or tries to hide her personal judgement. It's one of the hardest balancing acts in literary criticism or reviewing, a radical honesty about what a book does, how well it does it, and what kinds of readers are likely to enjoy those things.

I didn't always agree with her, of course. Her experience with mystery novels is quite different from mine, for example. I've tended to read them as moral dramas, stories about how individuals battle evil in their societies, more-or-less successfully, and she mostly writes about them as puzzles to be solved. 

But she's an immensely engaging writer, colloquial and deeply knowledgeable at the same time, describing her personal responses clearly and amusingly while also engaging with the depths of every book that actually has depths. Anyone can be amusing writing about how horrible a bad book is; I had a lurking concern that The Shelf might have elements of that. Rose is entirely on the other side of the ledger: she's looking for the positive things she can say about every book, from the South African novel that's clearly using metaphorical language about things she never quite understands, to the pulpy goofiness of Phantom and Le Queux, to that "worst novel on the shelf" I quoted about above.

She makes all of them sound enticing on some level, even the slogs. As if, maybe, on the right day, if you're the right reader, you would love it. That's a rare talent, and a wonderful attitude: I envy the generations of undergraduates who passed through Rose's classrooms. But anyone can get the same reaction, just by reading The Shelf.

I finished The Shelf faster than I expected, largely because reading it made me want to read more books. Maybe some of the ones she did, maybe entirely different ones, maybe a weird mixture. It's a book for people who love books, who love odd books, who love reading "off the beaten track," as Rose puts it. And it is massively successful at all of that.

[1] Rose is a clearly feminist critic, which may be behind part of that questioning impulse. She also spent her academic career championing particular books and writers, and re-evaluating many books and writers over several decades: that's the core intellectual work of an academic, at least the ones who take their job seriously.

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