Adventures in extreme reading

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a terrific new book written by Phyllis Rose…

Anyone who knows me is aware that my nose is frequently in a text of  one sort or other. I read the newspaper while eating breakfast, I peruse the New Yorker before bedtime each night and I race through at least one book a week (more when I’m on holiday.)

Thus, when my friend Hester gave me The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading as a birthday gift, I was delighted to meet an erudite, entertaining and often funny author who had set for herself a remarkable reading challenge. She read her way through a random shelf of her New York library’s fiction section and then wrote about the experience.

Rose had selected the shelf representing authors LEQ to LES because it contained one classic she wanted to read (A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov), it included books by both men and women and it represented a wide range of writing, from classic to contemporary.

Wisely, she doesn’t just focus on the books on this shelf but uses them as an excuse to share her wider views about reading, writing and literature in general. I particularly liked the way she sought out some of the still-living writers (notably, Rhoda Lerman) and I enjoyed Rose’s detailed explanation of the way in which libraries “weed” or “de-accession” their books.

But, mainly, I appreciated her passion for the act of reading. She writes:

Every time you read a work of fiction, you are committing an acte gratuit, a gratuitous act that proves your freedom. Novels and stories, as Jane Smiley has pointed out, can only attract, never coerce. “To read fiction is to do something voluntary and free, to exercise choice over and over.”

Learn more about Phyllis Rose. Better yet, read her book. (Either this one or Parallel Lives, which Nora Ephron apparently re-read every five years or so.)  I know Rose won’t mind if you take her book out of the library instead of buying it. That’s because books borrowed from the library at least twice a year don’t become deaccessioned.

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