The Chronicle Review

Rise of the Shelfie

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle Review

May 19, 2014

In the fall of 2011, the literary critic and writer Phyllis Rose came up with the idea of selecting a shelf of fiction in the New York Society Library (a subscription lending library on the Upper East Side), and reading through all its inhabitants. After establishing some ground rules—no more than four books by one author, none by writers she knew personally, and at least one unread classic—she chose LEQ-LES, which held 23 books by 11 authors: three women, and eight men.

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

By Phyllis Rose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Her decision was impulsive, but as a former (and recovering) academic, she had formulated some hypotheses and rationales for pursuing this 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," she writes. The experiment became an adventure in "off road" reading: "To go where no one has gone before. To ski fresh powder in the backcountry of the Rockies. … To be the first."

Rose describes the results in The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a contribution to the hybrid literary genre of the shelfie—part literary criticism, part memoir. While the combination of books she read was unique and fresh, the genre of reading-memoir is not new, and indeed Rose may have helped invent it, in 1997, with her radiant The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time, along with Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books (1996) and Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life (1998). There have been many more, including one of the latest to gain attention, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014).

Most shelfies are by women, for whom reading fiction is a primal scene, profoundly personal and formative. Some are by men, although generally men write more about book collecting and its related masculine pleasures of arranging books alphabetically, thematically, by the Dewey decimal system, or some other arcane method.

Rose’s shelf did not hold any books she had read before, and she took them up in random order, to see what patterns or narratives might emerge from her unmediated encounters. She started with a 1960s trilogy by the Afrikaans novelist Etienne Leroux, which she found off-putting and strange. Then came A Hero of Our Time, by the 19th-century Russian Romantic Mikhail Lermontov, both a peak and an obstacle—a mountain Rose couldn’t seem to get around or inside.

She first read Nabokov’s translation of the novel, with frequent querulous footnotes that sound hilariously like his own Pale Fire. She then tried an 1853 translation on Kindle, and then the Modern Library Classics paperback, with an introduction by the novelist Gary Shteyngart and a dire Reading Group Guide, bought used and heavily annotated by a previous owner. Nothing worked; she still didn’t connect to Lermontov’s classic. She was riveted, though, by Gaston Leroux’s iconic Phantom of the Opera.

And when she reached the little group of women writers, Rose says, she was "blown away" by the four novels of Rhoda Lerman, especially Call Me Ishtar, which came out at same time as Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. She also avidly read Margaret Leroy’s Gothic romance, Yes, My Darling Daughter, and Lisa Lerner’s dystopian science fiction, Just Like Beauty. This stage was the high point of her journey, and she pauses for an incisive chapter on women and fiction, examining why so many women novelists vanish despite auspicious beginnings.

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After this intense convergence of self and shelf, the rest of the book seems a dutiful descent. Rose was intrigued by the Austrian novelist Alexander Lernet-Holenia; surprised by savoring the picaresque Gil Blas, by Alain-René Le Sage; and bored by the popular fiction of William Le Queux. She ended with yet another, and more sympathetic, rereading of A Hero of Our Time. By the end, she speculates, she had become a different reader.

Like Gil Blas, Rose’s book is entertainingly picaresque, composed of individual episodes of reading made colorful by her wit, narrative flair, and critical sophistication. But it also tells a story about the way we read now. In a manner very different from her book about Proust, published only 17 years ago, Rose turns naturally to the tools of the contemporary reader—Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, Kindle, iPad—and moves easily between the shelf and the immediately accessible riches of the culture.

When she is reading Leroux, for example, she finds online a 1969 review of the trilogy by Charles Larson. Then she emails Larson, who is still teaching African literature at American University but who politely replies that he hasn’t reread Leroux in 30 years. Information about Leroux’s generation of Afrikaans-speaking novelists in the 1960s (the Seistigers) seems dry and remote, so she locates a YouTube clip of Leroux’s funeral, in 1989, and is "shocked to find myself, a stranger—a stranger who didn’t even like his writing—at the man’s graveside. The intimacy was terrifying and carried responsibility. Never again could I mention Etienne Leroux without feeling that I had been at his funeral and that I had a special relationship with him."

Reading the Modern Library paperback edition of A Hero of Our Time, Rose is fascinated by the provocative cover photo of a hip young man in sunglasses, finds it on the Getty Images website, Googles the jacket designer, Gabrielle Bordwin, and sends her an email inquiring about her critical intentions. In fact, Bordwin hadn’t even read the book, but as a design pro, she knew where to find the right image.

Rose even tracks down and meets Rhoda Lerman, at Blue Heaven Kennels, in Binghamton, N.Y., where Lerman and her husband now raise Newfoundland dogs, and Lisa Ler­ner, who has adopted a daughter from India. In short, she abandons scholarly reading procedures for Reading 2.0—active, interactive, personal, and social. Her methods are both entertaining and wish-fulfilling; she does establish an enviably special relationship with her writers.

Still, The Shelf has a melancholy subtext. Rose wonders whether "these books will sink back into the abyss of unread literature." She worries about the survival of books in libraries now culling titles that no one checks out. And she worries about the future of literary studies. At Wesleyan University’s library, she watches the CREW process (Continuous Review, Evaluation, and Weeding) in action and recognizes titles to be removed: "They were works of literary criticism that had been written by friends of mine when we were young and now were considered at the end of their useful life, just like their authors."

Will a young generation of critics and scholars be needed, and wanted, to replenish those empty shelves? At the start of her experiment, Rose, like today’s readers, rebelled against the canonical impulse of expert literary critics. But as reading becomes more autobiographical, information about books more available, and writers more accessible on Twitter or book tours, academic literary scholars with advanced degrees and tenure may be the remnants of a golden age we once took for granted. In the end, there’s something unavoidably elegiac about The Shelf and the shelfie.

Elaine Showalter is an emerita professor of 
English at Princeton University.