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Adventures in Extreme Reading

Aug. 11, 2014
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At a glance it looks like a fool’s errand: biographer and essayist Phyllis Rose randomly chose a fiction shelf (LEQ-LES) in a well-stocked New York library and reads from one end to another. The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a lively account of her “experiment,” the literary analogue to an off road vacation in Slovenia rather than a grand tour of Rome. Her stated purpose is to “sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature” as opposed to following those scholars that “wrongly favor the famous and canonical.”


Rose appears to undercut her own argument by admitting in the same paragraph that she “had no reason to believe that the books would be worth the time I would spend on them.” Maybe that’s the reason a canon is useful?


But once Rose gets going on the project, she produces an unusually lucid, insightful essay on literature, reading and aesthetics. Marching through the work of the unknowns and the half-forgotten became a way of testing her own values as a reader and a critic. Could she recommend Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, despite the callow, unchallenged assumptions on women held by its protagonist? And what about the opinions she stumbled across in a 1960 edition translated and edited by Vladimir Nabokov, burdened with footnotes and Nabokov’s sense of superiority over the novel at hand. Does the author of Lolita have the final word on a hero from an earlier time? And what of a recent translation she discovered alongside Nabokov’s, more readable and livelier, wrapped in a cover implying that the protagonist was a cool hipster?


As the journey continues, Rose discovers ‘60s-era South African novelist Etienne Leroux. She finds him virtually incomprehensible until Internet searches reveal his context as an Afrikaner writing coded critiques of Apartheid. A YouTube clip of his 1989 funeral “drew me closer to Leroux than either of the novels I had read” for giving Rose a glimpse of his role as a subtle dissident. But does that make him one of literature’s immortals, assuming such creatures exist? Does it matter?


The Shelf’s journey of reading through a baker’s dozen authors leads to an important conclusion: the topography of literature is varied with many paths worthy of respect and exploration, their authors “workers in words, creators of verbal reality.” Rose avoids the soul-killing dictates of recent cultural studies and attempts to address the texts as the products of people, living in particular places and times, trying to find meaning from their circumstances. The canon? Useful, but fascination waits beyond its borders.


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