I kick myself for letting the publication of Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf, subtitled, “From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading,” go unremarked, for it’s likely the most prominent celebration of neglected books to come out in many years.
“This book records the history of an experiment,” Rose writes at the opening of her book. “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.”
In fact, as she goes on to explain, not just the canon is chosen for us, but much of what is generally read. Even if the decision to pick up a particular book is yours, your access to the book is shaped by others in many ways: by booksellers in their choice of they stock and what they display; by reviewers in what they praise or condemn or simply deprecate; by editors in what they select to have reviewed; by librarians by what they choose to purchase, to retain, and to discard; by schools and professors by what they choose to put on their reading lists; and by other readers, whose choices produce best-seller lists and guide booksellers and librarians through feedback mechanisms that reinforce the success of the popular and, as Rose details with examples throughout the book, ensure the neglect of the unlucky.
Rose’s experiment was to read off-piste–that is, to read a selection of books with only an arbitrary criterion, and no received advice, as a guide. In her case, she eliminated a variety of options and settled on one particular shelf in the fiction section of the New York Society Library containing books by authors whose last names ran from LEQ to LES, “running from William Le Queux to John Lescroart, by way of Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James LeRossignol, Margaret Leroy, and Alain-René Le Sage.” As she sums up in her closing chapter, the experiment covered, “Twenty-three books. Eleven authors. Short stories and novels. Realistic and mythic. Literary fiction and detective fiction. American and European. Old and contemporary. Highly wrought and flabby fiction. Inspired fiction and uninspired.”
Rose found the experiment a bit of a trial at points. Sticking to the well-trod paths does provide a sort of guarantee: if others found a book worthwhile, chances are better that you will, too. There’s risk in going off-piste: sometimes, the experience isn’t worth the time. “I did not want to report on novels I found merely interesting,” she writes. “Yes, my disappointment could be made amusing up to a point, but what was in it for either of us, me or you? I wanted to address the life-enhancing possibilities of literature.” (I’ve tried to follow much the same approach with this site.) Rose goes beyond the call of duty in devoting time and thought even to her disappointments, giving, for example, the works William Le Queux more attention than they deserve even as historical artifacts.
But had there not been a few high points along her way through the shelf, it would have been easy to give up and head back to the plowed runs. For Rose, a high point is a book that passes a certain simple test: “The fiction I esteem is fiction I would reread. The test of time is beyond us as human beings with a limited life span, but the test of times is possible.” In her case, she found three books that passed–“texts to keep me company through life”: God’s Ear, by Rhoda Lerman, The Adventures of Gil Blas by Alain-René Lesage, and Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.
Along the way, however, she also discovers a few titles more than just interesting, if not life-enhancing. These include:
- • Baron Bagge and Count Luna, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia
- These two short novels by Lernet-Holenia, an Austrian writer whose early novel, The Glory is Departed, AKA The Standard, I reviewed here about a month ago, are little gems–one a supernatural love story (Bagge), the other a black-as-death comedy of paranoia gone wild (Luna).
- • The Habitant-Merchant, by James Edward Le Rossignol
- A collection of short stories, published in 1939, centered on a habitant-merchant–a Québécois farmer–turned shopkeeper and his family. Rossignol was something of a polymath, having studied philosophy and psychology, taught economics, and researched and written extensively on politics, education, economics, in addition to writing fiction.
- • Just Like Beauty, by Lisa Lerner
- This, Lerner’s one and only novel, a funny, savage, and yet somehow tender tale of a sexual dystopia, fell into neglect on the strength of one bad review in The New York Times, which ensured few other papers or magazines reviewed it, and left its fate to the enthusiasms the few readers who discovered and cherished it.
While extreme reading, might, in the words of The New Yorker’s feature on the book, require “special personal traits,” including “a dash of perversity,” Rose found it had rewards more than worth the effort. In fact, it’s an act of individual empowerment:
More people should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, on their own. That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it’s just a bookshelf. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others.
All of which makes me wonder if I shouldn’t rename this site ExtremeReading.com (well … maybe not).
Unlike Rose, I spend most of my time reading off the beaten path, and so I am sparing in my choices of current books. The Shelf, however, was a thorough delight, not only introducing me to the works of a few writers even I haven’t come across, but also full of thought-provoking observations. (Her comments about the continued challenges faced by woman writers is making me think that I should set aside 2015 as the year of the Neglected Books by Women.)
So if you’re hesitant to break out into uncharted reading territory, I recommend The Shelf for an initial shot of courage.