Bookforum talks with Phyllis Rose

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading BY Phyllis Rose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.

For her new book, The Shelf, Phyllis Rose read an entire shelf of fiction at the New York Society Library (NYSL), by authors whose names begin with LEQ to LES. The enterprise, which Rose refers to as “adventures in extreme reading,” led her to read authors good and bad, well-known and forgotten. The boundaries of the project, in fact, led Rose to unpredictable places: “I would read my way into the unknown—into the pathless wastes, into thin air, with no reviews, no bestseller lists, no college curricula, no National Book Awards or Pulitzer Prizes, no ads, no publicity, not even word of mouth to guide me.”

The Shelf muses not only on the books Rose found, but on their cultural contexts. We learn that the NYSL buys as many copies of books in the detective-fiction genre as they do all other fiction combined, and take in the uncomfortable truth that most formulas for keeping a book on the shelf depend on the frequency with which the book is checked out. We journey into the many lives (book, film, musical) of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera. And we take in Rose’s concern over the number of books by women on the shelf (eight out of thirty) while she considers the issue of women’s literary achievement over time. We also get to experience Rose’s sense of surprise and discovery as she makes her way through these books. Rose begins Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1840)—wild tales of a roué set in the Caucasus—hoping she will respond to this classic of Russian literature. She is not excited. Rose thinks the hero, Pechorin, is a cad, and finds her experience shaped by Nabokov’s combative 1958 translation, with its voluminous footnotes and judgments. Pechorin has lasting appeal for “young readers,” Nabokov jabs. Determined to connect with it, Rose reads four more editions over the course of her project. By the fifth translation, Rose feels the romantic fervor she was after. She had grown fond of Pechorin, and understands him better. She had also just plowed through countless detective novels, and, returning to Lermontov, was “happy to be away from sick children and depressive detectives, intractable problems and phony mysteries, and in a world where duels are fought, horses and women are stolen, and a man tests predestination by firing a loaded pistol into his head.”

Rose’s reputation was cemented in 1979 with Woman of Letters: A Biography of Virginia Woolf, which drew attention to Woolf’s influence by focusing not only on her life but also on her originality, her technique, and her feminism. In 1983, Rose followed up with the much-loved Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, about the marriages of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, and George Eliot and George Lewes. Other books include Jazz Cleopatra, a biography of Josephine Baker (1989) and The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time (1997).

Given Rose’s career as an exacting reader and critic, it’s thrilling to see, in The Shelf, the happenstance and whimsy that spring from a random grab bag of books. And the vastness of possibility those books (good or bad) possess is a terrific match for the vastness of Rose’s intelligence, which swerves from scholarly to oddball, and from sophisticated to fun.

Your reason for conducting your experiment in reading, in The Shelf, is exploratory. You suggest everyone should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, and want us to carve out our own values and our own “vocabulary of appreciation.” What did you learn about yourself in this experiment?

The point was never to learn about myself. It was to explore the library, “the real ground of literature,” the works that largely do not make it to the winner’s circle of immortality. As you say, I wanted to go into the unknown, like Shackleton in Antarctica, and I was even hoping to eat the sled dogs, metaphorically. In fact, I made many random contacts, which I enjoyed enormously. I got in touch with a man who reviewed a book in 1965 for a magazine that ceased publication twenty-five years ago. He didn’t remember the book at all. I talked with a book designer who brilliantly summarized and evoked books she’d never read. One thing I discovered is that reading, in the age of the Internet, has become much more centrifugal. It’s hard to read a text without looking for related information.

Those off-the-shelf discoveries are a cheerful way to think about the unintended consequences of libraries. What about the on-the-shelf discoveries and variations of serendipity you experienced?

My favorite discovery was Rhoda Lerman, who wrote some splendid novels in the 1970s and 1980s. Her first book Call Me Ishtar was a very funny, sexy, feminist romp, which had the bad luck to be published the same season as Fear of Flying. All Rhoda’s books were well reviewed, but they didn’t do well enough to encourage her to go on writing. She and her husband turned to breeding Newfoundlands for a living, which they still do quite successfully, producing, as their web site boasts, “champions and soul-mates.” (One of their dogs was recently featured in Vogue.)

It’s a joy to me that Rhoda has become a friend and that I may bring new attention to her work because of mine. It turned out that we had both spent the first years of our lives in the same town, Far Rockaway, New York, and that her favorite cousin was in my class in high school. I love this kind of coincidence! We are very different people but we felt close, perhaps, as she put it, because we drank from the same pond, the salt water of the Atlantic.

Your experiment gave you a chance to carve out a mental space for books you hadn’t read. Your choice of the LEQ-LES shelf was largely based on a work you considered a classic, which you wanted to read: Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. What makes a work a classic, a book that still resonates?

I thought about this a lot as I was working on the book and finally decided that the question should not be answered prescriptively. A classic is a classic if it lasts. If it proves itself capable of speaking to generation after generation. This is pragmatic, but I think appropriate. An athlete proves himself or herself to be a great athlete by winning competitions. A book proves itself to be a classic by lasting.

In writing this book, I developed a sort of theory of literary evolution. There’s a variety of natural selection at work in the literary realm. Successive generations can operate on a work of art so that there can no longer be said to be one author but a process at work. Phantom of the Opera is a great example of this. The original novel by Gaston Leroux was a feeble detective novel, the silent film a better horror story, but only in the Andrew Lloyd Webber production did this story what it needed most—music—and the buried love story brought to the fore.

I am similarly Darwinian about classics. It’s survival of the fittest, but who’s to know in advance which variation will prove crucially adaptive?

How has the women’s movement changed our perception of what kind of writing is important, or is it just that feminist writers have given certain styles, and certain writers, a second chance?

I was struck the other day by a piece in the Times reporting that many medical trials have produced skewed results because the lab animals were all male. It turns out that female lab rats create problems—hormones and the like—that the scientists didn’t want to deal with, so they stuck with males. But the drugs developed in these ways sometimes work differently for women than they do for men. The dosage may be different, the side effects and interactions. And science is just discovering this! Your question made me think of it. The women’s movement pointed to gender as an important determinant in experience. It was as important as pointing out that medical trials based solely on male subjects may not have validity for female subjects.

Lord Jim may not speak to a woman in the same way it speaks to a man; a man’s experience may not be “universal” as we used to be taught. Of course feminist criticism has made many rediscoveries and given many individual writers a second chance. But its impact on literary criticism goes beyond that. I do think, as you suggest, that it has made us question our notions of what is important, and therefore of what kind of writing is important. To give just one example, when I was in graduate school and ready to write my Ph.D. thesis, I wanted to write about Charles Lamb, whose essays I loved and whose relationship with his sister I found interesting. I was told this subject was “too minor” and so wrote instead about Dickens, whose importance no one questioned. I doubt this would happen now without laughter or some embarrassment, and that’s good.

How much should we take marriage and love into consideration when writing about women’s lives?

Of course we should take love and marriage into consideration when talking about women’s lives, but we should take them into consideration when talking about men’s lives, too. As for “How much?” I’d say, “The same for both.” I think, too, it would do men a world of good if they read more of the kind of novel that’s considered for women only, like the work of Jodi Picoult, what’s called domestic fiction. Also on my shelf are novels by Margaret Leroy, an English writer. She describes the terror of a woman whose child is very difficult. Her life is a nightmare because of this child, but how can she abandon her? Well, she can’t. I like to pair this with Lord Jim’s decision to abandon the ship of pilgrims he’s responsible for. Why is that a more serious moral plight than the woman’s childcare problems? Women are very open to reading the work of men, but men tend to resist reading work by women. If I could pass a law, I’d make it required for everyone to match each book they read by a man with a book by a woman and vice versa.

Which fictional marriages do you most admire?

Do you want me to cite good fictional depictions of marriage? Or fictional depictions of good marriages? Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seem to have a terrific marriage. I’d like to have a husband who is as good at getting done what I want him to do as Macbeth.

But if you’re asking about great depictions in literature of marriage, I’d have to go with less smoothly functioning couples, and portraits with a bit more cynicism about the institution. Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy is a favorite of mine. So is Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. The two marriages in Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke’s with Casaubon and Lydgate’s with Rosamund Vincy, capture a pretty fair range of what can go wrong in marriage, while Mr. and Mrs. Bulstrode in the same novel, who are unpleasant characters, have an excellent marriage. Rhoda Lerman’s The Girl That He Marries is one of the smartest books about marriage I can think of: The heroine knows that to catch the guy she wants she has to turn herself into a kind of person she does not want to be and their relationship into one (she has to be cruel to him) that she’d rather not have. I can’t think of a story by Alice Munro that isn’t smart about marriage, as well as the rest of human life, and the same goes for Ann Beattie. If I had to single out one story by each it would be Munro’s “Cortes Island” and Beattie’s “Burning Bed.”

In The Shelf, you talk about detective fiction, which fills a large part of libraries. You speculate that the brain’s desire to know what X is and find certainty accounts for the genre’s popularity. Isn’t that the opposite of what good literary fiction does?

Yes! Good fiction unsettles and surprises. Detective fiction is more like a machine than that thing of beauty which is a joy forever. Machines date fast. My grandfather brought samovars with him from Russia in 1890 because they were the up-to-the-minute thing. But who would want a samovar now when we can have a Nespresso machine? Who wants to read William Le Queux, who was wildly popular in 1900, when you can read Sue Grafton and Sarah Paretsky?

Can you tell us a few contemporary writers that you find unsettling or surprising today?

I wouldn’t read anyone I didn’t find unsettling or surprising in some way or other, but I especially like Junot Diaz, George Saunders, and Mary Roach. Mary Roach is not a fiction writer, but she is supremely imaginative. She’s re-invented science writing. I’m currently reading Gulp, her book about the alimentary canal.

In The Year of Reading Proust, you have a great chapter on your Who-Needs-Mother Cookbook and mention Proust’s insight on aging artists starting to value themselves on their secondary talents. Cooking is a highly creative endeavor, designed to please others, which strikes me as similar to writing. What do you get from it?

I like very much to entertain. I like to cook. I often have dinner parties. I think one of the reasons I responded so strongly to Virginia Woolf when I first read Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse was that she valued party-giving as a form of creativity. I don’t really care about the quality of the conversation at my dinners. I just want people to eat well, have a good time, and enjoy each other’s company. I live most of the year in Key West, where many other writers live and where many writers come to visit, especially in January, for the annual Key West Literary Seminar. So I’m in the lucky position of having people I would dream about entertaining actually at my table.

This year’s seminar brought me Alexander McCall Smith, Joe Kanon, and Elizabeth George, last year’s Geoff Dyer and Brenda Wineapple. Annie Dillard, Alison Lurie, Ann Beattie, Judy Blume, Bob Stone, Francine Gray, Judith Thurman, Molly Haskell, and Tom Mallon are all people I’ve been lucky enough to relax with. There’s this question often asked, “Who would you have for dinner if you could have anyone?” but with friends like mine, I don’t need to fantasize.

If someone gave you unlimited funds, what kind of library would you build?

A collection of books with beautiful covers. Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau. I savor the covers of books! My book is a love song to the physical space of the library, especially a library with browsable stacks. I do much of my reading on an iPad and value its convenience, so I am by no means a Luddite. But I think that stacks of books constitute a beautiful ecosystem that we should appreciate and make efforts to preserve or we’ll wake up and find one day that like the coral reef it is largely gone.

Diane Mehta’s recent work is in The Paris Review, The New York Times, and The New Republic. She’s writing a novel about a mixed-race couple in 1946 Bombay.