on 20 May 2014
This is a great idea - a book about reading. There's considerable promise at the start that we're going to be taken on a journey of prose. And not just the usual prose you'd expect to read about from a literary critic, but a much more randomised version as Rose elects to read the books in a New York library on the LES - LEQ shelf. She sets herself various sensible sounding rules - she doesn't have to read the books in order; if there happen to be several books by the same author then she only has to read three of them, and so on. There's even an element of real-life drama with storms as the opening backdrop.
Indeed, there are many lovely parts. I was fascinated by her descriptions of the impact of different translations of the same book. I learnt a great deal also about the process of 'library weeding' where old books are discarded to make room for the new. Towards the end, I also loved her take on how difficult it can be for writers to create their own 'voice', while the conclusion was simply charming.
However, there were many sections I really disliked. Somehow her own voice often came across to me as that of a sneering reviewer's (which is maybe why so many professional reviewers seem to adore this book...). This is curious considering that she also writes, "Negative reviews are fun to write and fun to read, but the world doesn't need them". Even when Rose describes the books she read that she enjoyed, I found nothing to encourage me to also go and seek them out for my own shelf. She states that literary critics wrongly favour the famous and canonical and then peppers her writing with constant reference to, you guessed it, the famous and canonical. There's a whole chapter decrying the gender inequality in prose, but she compares Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner to Jonathon Franzen. To me, that's almost like comparing Lee Child to Hillary Mantel. I have nothing against any of these writers (don't get me wrong, I enjoy reading them all) but in an argument about pervasive sexism in literature, I can't see how they can be considered comparable texts.
Rose is an excellent writer herself. In particular, I loved her phrase about a bad review becoming the 'death of the book baby'. This is certainly not what I'm trying to achieve here! I would suggest that if you want to expand your ideas on reading, then give this one a shot. There are parts to love: I just wish there weren't so many parts that I personally hated.
on 11 October 2014
There certainly are some things to like about this book. I am not sorry I read it. A few of the discussions, sparked by books Rose read, are particularly interesting. For instance, she discusses the belief that female writers aren't taken as seriously as male writers. Surprisingly for me, I realized I hadn't really thought about that before, since I personally had never made any perceptual distinction between the two sexes as legitimate writers. But once Rose started exploring the issue, it suddenly became obvious. Thank you to Rose for that! As another example, she discusses how books are weeded, that is, how books are permanently removed from library shelves to create shelf space for new acquisitions. I suppose I must have known this happens, but how, why, the criteria used, etc, were all unknown to me. More good information! And her description of the book Gil Blas is a nicely dynamic piece of writing.
One of my criticisms of the book is the subtitle: "Adventures in Extreme Reading." I understand that in today's publishing world a book must capture a reader's attention, sometimes with such a gimmick. But I find it off-putting. Reading one shelf of books is hardly, by any stretch of the imagination, extreme. An interesting little project, perhaps, but nothing more drastic than that. As a result, the subtitle promises far more depth and drama than the book actually delivers.
Another criticism. I suppose the trend started with Julie Powell's Julia Project (cooking all recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year). Since then, similar types of projects have sprouted like weeds for the purpose of then publishing a book about the project. Do this for a year, do that for six months, try something different for 4 weeks. Get some publicity, sign a publishing contract, and, voila, instant fame and success. Very gimmicky. This book falls somewhat within that category. And the problem with such projects, why they seem a little unsavory, is that they often use serious work created by another person/people to cobble together a quick little project for the aforementioned publicity and publishing. It is as if those project formulators can't create anything original and unique themselves, so they glom onto someone else's abilities and exploit them for personal gain. I'm not saying that Rose is exactly like that. She is very successful in her own right. But this book has the strong whiff of that trend.
Overall, the book is somewhat interesting. It doesn't really comprise a coherent whole, but if the chapters are read as separate essays rather than as related chapters in a single book, the volume makes a little more sense.