The Shelf by Phyllis Rose


18490539Hoping to explore the “real ground of literature,” Phyllis Rose 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.


Fear not, this is not a stunt memoir. Rose does read through a shelf at the library but it’s not as extreme as the title suggests as there’s no time limit, no angst when titles on the shelf change, and no diatribe about doing things right or wrong.  The shelf is a device, a way to hang interesting conversations about reading and the literary world together.

I like what she has to say.  While choosing a shelf she talks about how most of us have our reading chosen for us, be it by teachers and bestseller lists or award panels and librarians.  The fact that only three of the eleven writers on the shelf are women opens my favorite chapter about women and fiction.  She delves into how libraries decide what to keep and what to toss, and how opinions of books change (or not) over time and distance.  If you are a bookish person (I’m going to guess you are) Rose is speaking to you.

Refreshingly she doesn’t put down particular ways of reading.  Physical books are fine, but the text can be too small and the pages can crumble as you turn them, interfering with your enjoyment.

The ideal of translation as a pane of glass becomes embodied when you read on a Kindle or a Nook. Nothing comes between you and the text, certainly no object remind you distressingly of age and decay.

All of us who are unable to read physical books (audiobooks for the win) or have something going on that makes it a painful proposition (like my sad wrists) wholeheartedly agree.

Wide-ranging and packed with insight, The Shelf is a welcome addition to any “books about books” shelf.