Our occasional posts on books and book-ish things, on libraries and library-ish things, on authors and author-ish things, all grow out of the obvious: books are essential to humanity. We do what we can in the general interest of books. So, this item on the New Yorker‘s website about stunts in the stacks is welcome here and now:
In the nineteen-nineties, when you bought a book at Barnes & Noble the cashier slipped it into a plastic bag bearing a black-and-white illustration of an author’s face—Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton. Recently, I was poking around a bookstore in Manhattan and noticed a canvas tote for sale. In a simple red heart, the word “books” was spelled out in white letters. This tale of two bags is the story of decades of change in the publishing industry. “Books,” O.K.—but which ones?
The number of Americans who read books has been declining for thirty years, and those who do read have become proud of, even a bit overidentified with, the enterprise. Alongside the tote bags you can find T-shirts, magnets, and buttons emblazoned with covers of classic novels; the Web site Etsy sells tights printed with poems by Emily Dickinson. A spread inThe Paris Review featured literature-inspired paint-chip colors (a charcoal Funeral Suit for “The Loser”; a mossy “Graham Greene”). The merchandising of reading has a curiously undifferentiated flavor, as if what you read mattered less than that you read. In this climate of embattled bibliophilia, a new subgenre of books about books has emerged, a mix of literary criticism, autobiography, self-help, and immersion journalism: authors undertake reading stunts to prove that reading—anything—still matters.
“I thought of my adventure as Off-Road or Extreme Reading,” Phyllis Rose writes in “The Shelf: From LEQ to LES,” the latest stunt book, in which she reads through a more or less random shelf of library books. She compares her voyage to Ernest Shackleton’s explorations in the Antarctic. “However, I like to sleep under a quilt with my head on a goose down pillow,” she writes. “So I would read my way into the unknown—into the pathless wastes, into thin air, with no reviews, no best-seller lists, no college curricula, no National Book Awards or Pulitzer Prizes, no ads, no publicity, not even word of mouth to guide me.”
She is not the first writer to set off on an armchair expedition. A. J. Jacobs, a self-described “human guinea pig,” spent a year reading the encyclopedia for “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World” (2004). Ammon Shea read all of the Oxford English Dictionary for his book “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages” (2008). In “The Whole Five Feet” (2010), Christopher Beha made his way through the Harvard Classics during a year in which he suffered serious illness and had a death in the family. In “Howard’s End Is on the Landing” (2010), Susan Hill limited herself to reading only the books that she already owned. Such “extreme reading” requires special personal traits: grit, stamina, a penchant for self-improvement, and a dash of perversity.
Rose fits the bill. A retired English professor, she is the author of popular biographies of Virginia Woolf and Josephine Baker, as well as “The Year of Reading Proust” (1997), a memoir of her family life and the manners and mores of the Key West literary scene. Her best book is “Parallel Lives” (1983), a group biography of five Victorian marriages. (It is filled with marvellous details and set pieces, like the one in which John Ruskin, reared on hairless sculptures of female nudes, defers consummating his marriage to Effie Gray for so long that she sues for divorce.) Rose is consistently generous, knowledgeable, and chatty, with a knack for connecting specific incidents to large social trends. Unlike many biblio-memoirists, she loves network television and is refreshingly un-nostalgic about print; in “The Shelf” she says that she prefers her e-reader to certain moldy paperbacks.
Read the whole post here.