Phyllis Rose's book, The Shelf, is the story of an unusual experiment. It's subtitled "From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading". The author picked one shelf of fiction at the New York Society Library at random, LEQ to LES, to read through while writing about the experience. Actually, it seemed a little odd to write about twenty-three books and eleven authors. But, Rose said, "Usually we choose our reading from a preselected list of books, compiled by reviewers, awards panels, librarians, teachers, and professors, and these reading lists are remarkably resistant to change." She decided random choice was the only way to pick books, so she picked one shelf to read.
I'll admit this wasn't an easy book to read. Some of those choices were very odd. They just happened to be on that shelf. And, I've always said I'm not a literary reader, so sometimes I felt as if I was slogging through descriptions. Granted, the author felt the same way at times.
I did find two chapters particularly interesting although they weren't book descriptions. In one chapter, Rose analyzes women's writing when she realizes female authors only made up 27% of the shelf. However, she found that was not unusual. It's been pointed out before that male authors tend to be reviewed much more frequently than female authors. That chapter about female authors was very interesting. The other chapter I appreciated was the one about weeding books in libraries.
Maybe the most telling point is that it wasn't the chapters about this odd collection of books that interested me. It probably says more about me than it does about the book itself. Although any of us could pick a shelf at random and read the books, Rose has the knowledge and background to discuss the books. The Shelf is her account of time spent reading one eclectic shelf of books, and, more important, her interpretation and reaction to those books.
The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2014. ISBN 9780374261207 (hardcover), 271p.
FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.