The subtitle of Phyllis Rose’s new book, Adventures in Extreme Reading, sounds like the opposite of extreme sports, and Rose admits that while she imagined her “adventure” to be similar to crossing “Antarctica, reduced to eating the sled dogs, leading my men through the frozen wastes,” in reality, she prefers “to sleep under a quilt with my head on a goose down pillow.”
That sense of gentle, tongue-in-cheek irony permeates The Shelf, as well it should since Rose’s expedition is simply reading all the books on a single shelf in the New York Society Library: LEQ to LES. While this shelf is chosen largely at random, Rose picks it in part because it contains a mix of older and contemporary works and none are by an author she knows personally. She is curious about the largely forgotten writers whose works fill most of the space in any library: “Who reads their work now? Are we missing out?”
In general, her answer is that, yes, we are missing out, as she comes to appreciate not only moth-eaten classics like Alain-René Le Sage’s Gil Blas but also books by contemporaries such as Rhoda Lerman and Lisa Lerner, whom she meets and becomes friends with during the course of writing The Shelf. While Rose emphatically trusts her own judgment, she is also intrigued by the comments of the online community: “I discovered the fun of participating in a virtual conversation about literature at any moment of the day or night.”
Rose is naturally sympathetic to the efforts of other writers, even if their work doesn’t particularly move her. In fact, she is at her funniest when she dislikes the material she has forced herself to read. She describes two of the heroes in detective novels by John Lescroart this way: “Rather than old friends whom I looked forward to seeing again, they were the couple who were always inviting us over for dinner and I finally had to accept, knowing we were in for a lackluster evening.”
Not surprisingly, reading so many books that have largely disappeared from public view leads Rose to the world of “deaccessioning” or “weeding.” Librarians use the acronym MUSTIE to decide if a book must go. Is it Misleading, Ugly, Superseded by a new or better edition, Trivial, Irrelevant to the needs of the community it serves, and can it be found Elsewhere? As Rose suggests, just about any book could be accused of at least one of these sins, and weeding turns out to be a hot topic in library circles, with most librarians sadly conceding its necessity, while an outspoken few champion the idea that deaccessioning books “is akin to eugenics and murder.”
Ultimately, the pleasure of The Shelf is Rose’s writing, which is thoughtful, droll, and occasionally indignant. The book itself is a success. In contrast, Rose’s efforts to promote the books she encounters in LEQ to LES are less effective. This is due in part to her honesty in reporting on the books’ style and contents; they rarely sound scintillating. By the end of a chapter, she may have convinced herself that she has uncovered a hidden treasure, but the average reader cannot be blamed for remaining content to allow these neglected volumes to remain on their shelf.