Phyllis Rose embarked on a grand literary experiment to read a random shelf of library books–and then she wrote a book about it called The Shelf. Here, she took the time to answer a few questions about her reading habits and shared a picture of the shelf she read.
What’s one book you return to over and over again?
Middlemarch. I’m so glad Rebecca Mead wrote a book about the importance of Middlemarch in her life. It spoke for a lot of us.
What book would you consider an ‘ancestor’ of your own most recent FSG book and why?
Montaigne’s essays. All my personal writing goes back to Montaigne. Although he was a modest man, who didn’t think himself extraordinary in any way, he believed that everyone’s mind was unique, and he wanted to leave a record of his own. “I have dedicated this book to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen,” he wrote when he published his essays in 1580, “so that, having lost me (as they must do soon) they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours.”
What’s one book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
Frankly, The Golden Bowl. What a terrible admission!
What’s the last book that made you cry?
It’s never happened.
Can you send a photo of your bookshelf?
This is the shelf of books I write about in The Shelf, a randomly chosen shelf in the New York Society Library.
What’s your favorite indie bookstore?
Crawford Doyle, Madison Avenue, NYC.
What are you reading now?
Alice Munro’s collection, Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage. Reading short stories by Alice Munro, Ann Beattie, Annie Proulx, Amy Bloom, Denis Johnson, Tobias Wolff, and Chekhov is one of my default settings.
What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?
Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. “How would you like to go up in a swing?/ Into the sky so blue./ Oh I do think that’s the pleasantest thing/ That ever a child could do.” I remember my father reading this to me before I could read myself, and the lines still seem thrilling.
What’s one book that ended up different from what you expected, whether for better or for worse?
Phyllis Rose is the author of A Woman of Letters, a biography of Virginia Woolf that was a finalist for the 1979 National Book Award; Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages; Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time; The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time; and two collections of essays. She divides her time between Key West and New York City.