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The Shelf

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THE SHELF Phyllis Rose

The Shelf

Current Status:
In Season
Phyllis Rose
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

We gave it a B+

Maybe you shouldn’t read this review. Phyllis Rose wouldn’t want you to. A National Book Award finalist and Virginia Woolf biographer, she starts The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading by lamenting that too many people choose what to read by listening to critics, rather than discovering worthy books on their own. So, attempting what she calls ”extreme reading” — she largely means noncanonical exploration, though it’s fun to imagine her kayaking over a waterfall with Jane Eyre in hand — she chose a library shelf at random, fiction authors filed under LEQ—LES, and began searching for greatness. Sadly, the novels themselves, which include a political tale from an Afrikaans writer, a California detective mystery, and the original, nonmusical The Phantom of the Opera, are mostly what you’d expect: good, not great, books that don’t really merit a place alongside the classics — though Rose’s determination to enjoy them is nothing short of heroic. She dislikes one 19th-century Russian novel so much that she reads it multiple times, just to figure out why, then ends up loving it. But her observations about how we read in 2014 are deeply engrossing, especially when she delves into the somewhat arbitrary (and, she argues, often inherently sexist) process of how books get selected for the canon in the first place. She also just seems like a fun person to hang out with, the kind of woman who confesses to hiding from her husband so she can drink vodka and devour a spy novel in peace. And her passion in The Shelf is contagious. It helps ward off the sadness of knowing that most books — and the humans who put everything they had into them — will eventually disappear from memory. Let’s hope this book isn’t one of them. B+

Memorable Line

”Reading a great novel is like talking to the dead. There is no need for a psychic. When you read the words of a dead or absent master, they sound in your brain and he or she is present in the room.”