On Reading: The Shelf

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading

by Phyllis Rose

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

In my final post in this On Reading reflections, I explore The Shelf  in which Phyllis Rose decides upon reading every book on a specific fiction shelf (LEQ-LES) in the New York Society Library (NYSL) allowing the library’s arbitrary alphabetised ordering principle (such as I discussed in my last post) to dictate her choices.  I really like the sub sub heading of Adventures in Extreme Reading. Extreme reading, I assumed for the risks the reader takes in serendipitous choice of a shelf that could introduce all manner of wild ideas to the reader. For if this is extreme reading then librarianship by default becomes an extreme profession, one which allows us to venture into readerships unphased and fearless. I also think that this concept of extreme reading is one that we in the library profession take for granted as we have our regulars who often tackle shelves without documenting their progress.

To begin with, I was surprised at Rose’s level of understanding of how libraries function. She understood the need for deaccessioning (weeding) in order to make room for new books. She understood all the different pressures and considerations that library staff have when they are assessing materials that need to be kept in a library. “Merely the fact that I checked out Leroux’s novels changed their fate. Since almost all formulas for deciding whether to keep or discard books in a library depend on how often a book is taken out and when it was last removed from the stacks, my interest alone will give these volumes another five years or so of life in the valuable real estate of a Manhattan Lending library” (p 23). Yes, folks. It is as easy as that. Borrow a book and you save it for at least another year or so. Everytime I hear some literary boffin bemoaning libraries deleting classics, consider the fact that many of those books have not been borrowed for 15, maybe 20 years. Lending libraries are not repositories, they are not museums and much as it is a knife stab to the heart of antiquarians, lending library staff are not keepers of the unread word.

So her choice of library was interesting in that it was a subscription library and not a public library. Subscription libraries are quite different to local libraries as their clients pay an annual fee to access the materials that are available to them. Rose is conscious too of the literary vetting that occurs for women to have any place on the library shelf. Phyllis Rose acknowledges the gatekeepers. She discusses VIDA Lit (where a few books ago, I felt that Stan Persky would have benefitted from including VIDA lit in his writing). She explores this idea that only 3 female authors are on her shelf of library reading and how this impacts her serendipitous reading. This represents only 27% of the total book titles on her shelf. Phyllis Rose further enamours me to her by referring to V. S. Naipaul who said that women writers were not more respected due to suffering  from “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world” (pg 102) as Sir Grumpus Maximus. She explores the fine line between writing great books that men will laud but women will read too without being seen as a male author that women love for that would be the “kiss of death”. Her discussions of women reading mimic so many of those that I read and take part in both the twittersphere and the blogosphere but I had yet to see these opinions published in a print book. I feel as though the printed world has finally caught up. Libraries purchase their materials on the strength of reviews so gender bias affects reading and access to materials. Though there is some library scholarly discussion on this bias there is very little that discusses this perspective as a library user, as someone outside of the library institution but within literary institutions. I am mindful, that in the 27%, Rose does not encounter a romance author. I am a bit disappointed at this, as I think that she would have fully embraced the genre should it have occurred on her shelf. But even I am hard pressed to think of any romance authors whose surnames fit within the LEQ-LES span. However, I think that had she chosen the BAL-BAN shelf, she would have openly embraced Mary Balogh, or had she explored JAM-JAR she would have loved Julie James. But even then, the NYSL had few romance choices even if Rose had chosen a different shelf to explore. There is no Mary Balogh, Cecilia Grant or Julia Quinn and only Eloisa James’s Paris travel memoir is in their catalogue. I keep searching for more names – Laura Kinsale is missing as is Loretta Chase. Miranda Neville, Kristan Higgans, Victoria Dahl – they are all absent. But Jennifer Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Nora Roberts are all on the shelf. There are a few Suzanne Brockmann titles that could have shaken Phyllis Rose’s world and thankfully there were plenty of Georgette Heyer titles. Laughably, I did search for Harlequin and Mills and Boon titles and there were no titles at all held at this library. Not even in the Large Print section, possibly one of the few collections of category romances that have been known to sneak onto subscription library shelves (well – at least they have at the Sydney Mechanics for the Arts Library). However, and this will come as no surprise to many romance readers, there was plenty of crime fiction and it was certainly represented on Rose’s shelf. Not only did the library collect crime fiction but they also have a monthly newsletter with about 60 titles. Once again, my exasperation at libraries comes through. So much effort is placed in buying and reviewing crime, yet with romance the comments from buyers will often be “there is too much published in a month, we can’t buy, we don’t know where to start”. Yes. Well. There seems to be no problem with a starting point for crime. In my opinion, it is library selections that has impacted on the arbitrariness of Rose’s reading. But I digress.

The NYSL is one of the oldest in New York and it is evident in the breadth of age of the books that Rose reads. I love the way she explores each book, considering the text as only part of a story. Rose takes us down the rabbit holes that each book has sent her on. She meets authors who become friends, she discovers stories of authors dying before their time due to senseless duels, she creates reading maps with every book she reads. I wanted to stand on my chair and cheer her.

I am amused by her perspective. Phyllis Rose discusses grotty books and how “many people claim deep attachment to the feel of traditional books” without the acknowledgment that often the physical book can come between you and the text when it is a dirty, well used book. This is often the problem with library books. As sentimental as one may be, the dirt and grime of a well worn copy that is no longer in print leaves a library in a quandary as to delete or keep the book on the shelves.

I love that Phyllis Rose quotes Library Journal, she explores humour and domesticities and I find myself nodding and agreeing with her every line. She says that “spontaneity, inclusiveness and uniqueness are marks of great fiction” when discussing Jodi Picoult’s books and she asks “How do we make aesthetic judgements”(p 139) . This one phrase is of high importance to me. Phyllis Rose is exploring a library and reading a specific shelf. How did the librarians, the collection development and acquisitions staff make those aesthetic judgments over so many years that have in turn impacted so greatly on the discussions that appear in this book.

In reading and writing this book, Phyllis Rose writes that she read 23 books and 11 authors, she discovered short stories, novels, realistic, mythic, literary and detective fiction, American, European, old, contemporary, highly wrought and flabby fiction, inspired and uninspired fiction. She says that “My shelf covered a lot of ground”. Phyllis Rose was guided by the arbitrariness of the alphabet and in it discovered both forgettable books but more importantly, several keepers. I worry about people who will recreate Phyllis Rose’s experiment who walk into genrified libraries. How will this lack of arbitrariness impact the books they take home. I worry about the libraries who keep the majority of their stock in robotic stacks, buried deep and only searchable by the subject headings that are attached to them by cataloguers who have not necessarily read beyond the cover information made available to them. What secrets remain deeply buried in these stacks that will not be browsed upon, that there is no possibility for serendipitous discovery. Ross’s reading led her through labyrinths of discussions and other reading from reviews, to blogs to research and to the original authors themselves.

Phyllis Rose ends her book thusly “If The Shelf brings other readers to these novels, I will be happy, but even happier if it sends them into the stacks of libraries to find favorites of their own and to savor the beauties of what I hope is not a vanishing ecosystem”. This book sang to me. It was not only a pleasure but a celebration of my own reading ideals. Catherine Sheldrick Ross was already a match reading perception wise. However, this was not a surprise to me as I am in her (library) tribe. But I had yet to find an omnivorous, generous, aesthetic reader from within literary circles published in traditional print form. I know they exist – they are already in the virtual world and they are part of my real world but I had not found a book written by a literary that discussed their approach to reading with such equanimity as Phyllis Rose.   I love reading someone who has a deep understanding of not only how literature relates to the everyday person but is able to shift with how attitudes to reading has been changing over the past decades. I am so thrilled by this book. I love the shelf reading premise (shelf reading is a daily task for employees of libraries). I love that reading through a library shelf is considered extreme reading. I adored every single page of this book for Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf is everything that I look for in a book discusses discussing reading and how it relates to the world around us.

This book is worthy of fireworks.


The copy of the book I read was borrowed from my university’s library. I discovered it by browsing the library shelves.

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