My Favorite Book v. 2014

If you’ve ever held one of my business cards in your hand, you’ve seen it, scrawled across the bottom in 24-point type: I love books!

And I do. I love talking (er, writing) about reading them, about editing them, about authors and writing. Honestly, if there were enough time in my day, I’d write about very little else. A girl can dream, can’t she?

But for now I’ll settle for a post about last year’s favorite.

Two years ago I published a year-end article about my favorite book that year (2012), and I liked the idea, so I did it again for 2013. Last year I read a lot of nonfiction and I blogged about four of those titles—Lunch in Paris, Frederick, Hamlet’s BlackBerry, The Shelf—and one novel, the spectacular A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. It was a good year for reading. (You can see the entire fiction list here.)

So let’s talk about Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf. It was my favorite book for 2014.

You might have seen it coming. I transcribed a passage for a Short Saturday post in August, an insight about the Great Franzen/Oprah Kerfuffle of 2001. About the time I was struggling to write my four-part series on how gender is perceived in fiction (here’s part 1), I was galvanized by the author’s chapter called “Women and Fiction: A Question of Privilege” and quoted her thoughts in another post in the gender series. I highlighted the book in my Year of Reading Nonfiction post, too, as particularly recommended. Back in September I wrote about books about books (Have You Read All These?) … and that’s a good place to start, because The Shelf is one such book.

The concept intrigued me. The book blurb says,

Phyllis Rose, after a career of reading from syllabuses and writing about canonical books, decided to read like an explorer. She “wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature.” Casting herself into the untracked wilderness of the New York Society Library’s stacks, she chose a shelf of fiction almost at random and read her way through it. Unsure of what she would find, she was nonetheless certain “that no one in the history of the world had read exactly this series of novels.”

Rose called it Extreme Reading, and while I am much pickier about how I spend my precious reading time, I was intrigued and, ultimately, delighted with the topics I encountered there. This is much more than a book about books, about reading books and reporting back. It’s a book about ideas, about authors, about women in publishing, about writing, about libraries … oh, it was tailor-made for me. I loved it, I wrote about it, I talked it up to my friends. And now I’m telling you.

Rose tells the story of reading Lisa Lerner’s 2002 novel Just Like Beauty, and wondering why she’d never written another book. She tracks down the book’s editor (Becky Saletan) when she can’t find the author:

She had loved that book. Everyone at FSG was excited about it. … Then it was reviewed in the daily Times by Richard Eder. She remembered the morning the review came out. When she woke up, her husband had already read the paper and said, “Becky, bad news. Your book got ripped apart.” And after that, the book withered. It sold in French translation. It was optioned for the movies. But it never sold as well as the publisher and the author had a right to expect. … Every writer has one review they cannot forget and cannot forgive. … Mention the cursed name, and you’ll hear a shriek or a gasp, and the story of the unforgiveable assault is told. … My own nemesis review was one I never read. It was faxed to me, and my husband read it as it came in on the fax machine. His face turned white. I had never seen a face do that. It made an impression. He said, “Do not read this,” and I never did. Perhaps that’s why Becky Saletan’s story of her husband breaking the bad news to her means a lot to me. Behind every book, behind every author, there’s the friend or partner, lover or spouse, children and parents, brothers and sisters, agent, editor, the editor’s or agent’s friend or partner, lover or spouse, the sales director and the art director and their lovers and spouses perhaps as well, and brothers and sisters and children and parents, and all of them know that there has been a death in the family, the death of the book baby.

Publishing is a hard business. I suspect you already know this.

But there’s more to the story. When Rose finally found Lerner, they had a nice chat. Lerner said,

I wrote a whole draft [and then threw it out]. … I’m glad I sacrificed the first draft. I was trying too hard to be taken seriously. I think a lot of people writing first novels are telling stories that they need to tell. It’s a personal, cathartic, therapeutic endeavor that they’re embarked on, making sense of the chaos inside them by organizing it on these pages. But that’s not what a novel is. You have to be somewhat removed.

This also sounds so very familiar, doesn’t it?

Honestly, I loved this book. On every page I was challenged by new ideas, encouraged to see things in a different light. And yet it wasn’t hard to read—it wasn’t work. On the contrary, it was fun! Rose writes less as an academic than your delightful Aunt Phyllis, who takes you to tea and regales you with great stories. About her, the New Yorker says,

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.

My favorite book of 2014: The Shelf by Phyllis Rose. Read it!

Tweet: On every page I was challenged by new ideas, encouraged to see things differently.
Tweet: Rose writes like your delightful Aunt Phyllis, who takes you to tea & tells great stories.
Tweet: I’d write about books all day if I could. I’ll settle for a post about last year’s favorite.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. […] of this nature always interest me (see my favorite book of 2014, for example, or my year of reading […]

  2. By My Year of Reading Nonfiction on 17 December, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    […] ** One of these is my favorite book for 2014—but I haven’t written that post yet, so you’ll have to wait. (And here’s that one!) […]