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The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading

This book records the history of an experiment. Believing that literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical—that is, writers chosen for us by others—I wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature. So I chose a fiction shelf in the New York Society Library somewhat at random—it happens to be the LEQ–LES shelf—and set out to read my way through it, writing about the experience as I went. I had no reason to believe that the books would be worth the time I would spend on them. They could be dull, even lethally so. I was certain, however, that no one in the history of the world had read exactly this series of novels. That made the project exciting to me.

I thought of my adventure as Off-Road or Extreme Reading. To go where no one had gone before. To ski fresh powder in the backcountry of the Rockies. To hack through a Mexican jungle and discover a lost city. To be the first to cross Antarctica, reduced to eating the sled dogs, leading my men through the frozen wastes, across the Strait of Magellan, and over the treacherous mountains of South Georgia Island. To be the first. However, I like to sleep under a quilt with my head on a goose down pillow. So 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. In the fifteenth century, Poggio Bracciolini, a Vatican secretary, spent his leisure time combing monastery libraries for texts of antiquity. He located them, copied them in his own beautiful hand or caused them to be copied, and made them known to other humanists. I read about Poggio in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, and I envied that Renaissance geezer. I would have loved to spend weeks going through unexamined scrolls and codexes and to stumble upon Lucretius’s masterpiece, De Rerum Natura, which no one had read in fifteen hundred years. This was my kind of exploration.
Usually we choose our reading from a preselected list of books, compiled by reviewers, awards panels, librarians, teachers, and professors, and these reading lists are remarkably resistant to change. Occasionally an intellectual movement comes along, feminism for one, that opens up our sense of what is major and what is minor, enlarging the pool of books read, but this does not happen often. And then the upstarts themselves have a way of becoming canonical, unquestioned, and a new generation considers Mrs. Dalloway or The Harder They Come essential reading. What about all those books that are never read at all, never even considered? Who speaks for them? Arbitrary choice is the most radical response to conventional judgment. Let me, I thought, if only for a change, choose my reading almost blindly. Who knows what I will find?

Not all my friends saw the potential of this idea. How many books were on a shelf? Maybe thirty. How many writers? Maybe ten. “So you will write about ten randomly chosen unknown writers?” they said, smiling with feigned enthusiasm. “No,” I replied. “Something more organic. It will be more like a travel journal.” “But you’re going to discover a great writer who lived in obscurity without the recognition he or she deserved, right?” Well, maybe, but that wasn’t the point.

My generation was shaped by an approach to literature that began with the Romantics, was codified by Matthew Arnold, and reached its peak through a broad group of critics that included Lionel Trilling and F. R. Leavis. It believed that literature was an instrument of moral education. It imbued literature with depth and urgency, what we did not hesitate, as late as the 1960s, to call relevance to life. It believed that novelists and poets were special beings, “unacknowledged legislators,” people who taught and enlarged us. Through them we might investigate every important issue. No matter what future you imagined for yourself—as a doctor, a lawyer, a banker, a cabaret singer—engaging with literary texts in your student days would benefit you. Therefore, for a while, the study of literature moved to the center of the liberal arts curriculum. Many of us became “English majors.”

This approach had flaws, of course. It always risked becoming moralistic, and it elevated certain writers over others, writers whose works were considered especially meaningful. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, a reaction had set in. Any attempt to justify literature as giving the reader something became suspect. We had known for a long time not to seek a simple message in literature. But under the influence of French criticism, we were led to believe that there was nothing there at all. Everything we thought we saw in fiction, we ourselves brought to the text. A text was a culturally produced set of markers, no more, and the author’s role in producing the text was very small. Nothing could be more ridiculous than to discuss what he or she was trying to say. That nothing lay at the heart of the literary experience—no author-intended meaning or even set of concerns—was, temporarily, refreshing.

We English majors, despite our military epithet, never understood that we had to fight for the literature we so much enjoyed. Its study seemed so well-entrenched, we took it for granted. When the Trojan horse arrived, in the form of clever, infinitely sophisticated professors of literature from France, we accepted their delicious gifts of irony, novelty, and nihilism and did not see the danger. Now, a generation later, the edifice that took a hundred years to put in place, and that spread a kind of enlightenment over America, is gone. We have to do all over again the work of proving that there is any point to reading a novel besides making time pass more quickly. This book is my way of making amends for not fighting when I should have. I thought the problem would go away if I waited, and eventually it did. But, as with a tsunami engulfing a city, when the waters receded, the city was gone.

*   *   *

My project began with a storm. The entire Northeast was about to be hit by Hurricane Irene, which was expected to be historically destructive. I was vacationing in a rented house on Martha’s Vineyard as we all waited, terrified, fearing we would be washed out to sea as people were by the hurricane of 1938. I searched my landlord’s collection of books for appropriate reading and found it in The Last Voyage of Columbus by Martin Dugard.
Columbus was trying to locate the western passage to India when he arrived in the Caribbean on his fourth and last voyage. Superb seaman that he was, he sensed an extraordinary storm in the offing. He sought shelter in the harbor of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, but the governor, jealous of Columbus, found a reason not to let him bring his ships in. Columbus begged the governor to detain the treasure fleet that was about to set sail for Spain, but the governor would not do that either. Denied shelter in the harbor, Columbus led his ships northwest to relative safety and rode out the storm. The treasure fleet headed northeast, into the path of the hurricane, and no one survived.

This was perfect reading for a tense moment. As I was definitely on Columbus’s side, I knew I would be safe. And so I was. Irene passed, doing no harm to New York or the Vineyard, though much to inland parts of New England. I was able to return to New York City, where I would spend the rest of the summer.
Two weeks after my return, hurricanes were still on my mind. The papers were still filled with hurricane news. I went to my local library to find Hurricane, a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, recommended by a friend who knew I shared her enthusiasm for Nordhoff and Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty. My friend and her husband, dedicated readers, had set out to read everything Nordhoff and Hall had written and so had discoveredHurricane. I found the volume in the stacks, experiencing that rush you get when you find the title you want, and put it in my tote bag to check out. But at the same moment, I realized I had no desire to read it. I had had enough of hurricanes.

What, then, should I read? I was surrounded by thousands of books, but I had no reason to head toward one letter of the alphabet rather than another.

The library was the New York Society Library on East Seventy-ninth Street in New York, a magnificent lending library where one can browse in the stacks and take several books home to read at a time. Only members can check out books, but anyone can use the reference room and can become a member by paying a fee, currently $225 per year for one person or $275 for a household. This is the oldest library in New York, in existence since 1754, founded by a group of young men who believed that a library would help the city prosper. They called themselves the New York Society. To belong to the library is to join a self-selected family of readers stretching back to the Founding Fathers. George Washington borrowed books from this library—and, some say, failed to return them. Later, Thoreau and Audubon, among others, roamed its hospitable stacks. Later still, Truman Capote and Willa Cather both used the library and became friends as a result. Originally in the Wall Street area, it moved uptown over the years, first to Leonard Street and Broadway, then to University Place off Union Square, and then, in 1937, to its current location on Seventy-ninth Street just off Madison Avenue, where it has become, with the 92nd Street Y, the greatest center of literary activity on the Upper East Side.

The building had been a private home, built in 1917 for the John S. Rogers family. The mansion was extensively reconfigured to become a library, but many of the original features survive—the stately Renaissance Revival limestone façade, the elegant stone staircase to the second floor, the coffered ceilings, the carved wooden arches. These give the building an aura of privilege and of Gilded Age splendor. At the back there are twelve floors of stacks to hold the collections and at the front, on the second floor, a gracious, light-filled room where a member can sit in a comfortable chair and read in quiet. From the moment the massive street doors open for me and I ascend the entrance stairs with their polished brass banister, I feel privileged. I have entered Edith Wharton’s New York—a grandfather clock opposite the checkout desk in the lobby, ancestors’ portraits in the stairwell. The Old Ones believed in dignifying the life of the mind with marble, murals, and mahogany, creating such grand spaces as the Widener Library at Harvard, the New York Public Library, and, on a more intimate scale, this jewel on Seventy-ninth Street. It may be the cheapest luxury in New York.

I was still standing in front of the books by Nordhoff and Hall, of which there was a huge number. As I looked around—and this was only one of two floors in the stacks holding fiction—I saw many long runs of books by one author. It was disconcerting. Often, I knew authors by only one book, as I had known Nordhoff and Hall by Mutiny on the Bounty. But each writer had spent a lifetime writing. What were the other books like? Who were all these scribblers whose work filled the shelves? Did they find their lives as writers rewarding? Who reads their work now? Are we missing out? I wonder if, at some point, all readers have the desire that I had then to consume everything in the library, but it is a desire no sooner formulated than felt to be impossible. One shelf, however, might be read, a part to stand for the whole. Even that would take time and perseverance.

Thus I came to the idea of choosing a shelf at random and reading my way through it to find what I would find. I suppose my friend’s gallant and reckless gesture of reading everything by Nordhoff and Hall was in my mind. But the moment I had this idea I realized that wholly random would not do. If I whirled around and pointed to a shelf, it might be the shelf containing Nordhoff and Hall, which would contain little but Nordhoff and Hall—or, if I moved down a few shelves, Kathleen Norris. So I created a rule: I would not read a shelf that contained more than four books by one author. This eliminated many shelves because writers, if they have any success, are unlikely to stop with four books. The shelves were filled with the work of writers who had published dozens: Stuart Woods, Sinclair Lewis, Louis L’Amour, to say nothing of Trollope, Dickens, and Walter Scott. The inner stacks in the New York Society Library are nine shelves high, with eighteen of them per floor, six shelves wide, making 972 shelves on each floor. The outer walls have another 277 shelves. I sampled dozens without finding a shelf that held fewer than four books by one author. So I revised my rule. There had to be several authors represented on the shelf, and only one could have more than five books. Of those five I had to commit myself to reading only three. In addition, there had to be a mix of contemporary and older works, and one book had to be a classic I had not read and wanted to.

This mixture, too, was surprisingly difficult to find. Sometimes a shelf caught my eye, seeming, at first, varied and nicely balanced, but as I made my way from left to right, I found myself facing the monumental oeuvre of some vastly successful author of a century ago. Or I found a nicely balanced shelf, but there was no classic. Many shelves were filled with the popular entertainments, especially the detective stories, of another age. As for the entertainments of today, I had already read the ones I cared to. I had read almost every Elmore Leonard, Sarah Paretsky, and Alexander McCall Smith. This experiment was not about my learning to love Jodi Picoult or Danielle Steel, worthy as these writers may be.

As I surveyed shelf after shelf, I had to formulate other rules—for example, I could choose no shelf that contained work by someone I knew. This was occasioned by a tempting W shelf that held five novels of Katharine Weber, who is a friend of mine and who is not, to my mind, widely enough known. It would give me the greatest pleasure to write about her work and explain its many virtues. But that would bias the project and also make me watch what I was saying more than I wanted to. So, no friends.

At last, after looking at perhaps two hundred shelves out of some thirteen hundred on this floor of the stacks (remember that fiction continues onto a second floor) I found a classic that I had not read and wanted to—Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. This seminal work in the history of the Russian novel, which I had managed to live my life without reading, shared a shelf with another book I had heard of as an English major but never read, Gil Blas, the granddaddy of picaresque fiction. There were also works by a writer called James LeRossignol, whose name intrigued me, and two books by an immensely prolific writer named William Le Queux, which had spilled over from a previous shelf and gave me the chance to sample this evidently popular Edwardian novelist. Visually, the shelf I had focused on was a pleasing mix of old-style bindings, gold-stamped library-bound hardcovers, and modern books whose colorful jackets were wrapped in Mylar.

I was hoping I had found the goal of my quest. But as I moved right, tracking titles with my finger, I came to a big block of books by the same author, old books in purple bindings with gold stamping. The author was Gaston Leroux, and one of his books was The Phantom of the Opera, but there were many, many others. To add to the problem, I could see another big block of books up ahead of me in the paper jackets and plastic protectors that signaled contemporary works. These novels proved to be by John Lescroart, whose oeuvre, after depositing six books on my shelf, cascaded over in a mighty flow onto much of the next. Well, who was setting the rules? Who was writing the algorithm? What was the point of this activity if not to assert my own freedom? Without rules, there is no forward movement, but the rules themselves are malleable. Creativity can be thought of as a stone you roll down a ramp that you yourself built. The ramp and stone are imagined; what’s real is the energy created by the imaginary stone hurtling down the imaginary ramp. That energy enables people to get things done, books written, companies founded. So I devised a new rule that if the shelf was well-balanced overall, especially if it included some women if it was mostly men, or men if it was mostly women, I could include not just one but two longer runs, of which I had to read only three books in each run. Now the shelf LEQ–LES, running from William Le Queux to John Lescroart, by way of Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James LeRossignol, Margaret Leroy, and Alain-René Le Sage, would do just fine. More than fine.

The instant I selected my shelf, I felt an immense tenderness for it. As when a puppy is put into your arms for the first time, or even more so, too much so, a child. The sense of pure potential might be depressing, your sense of your own responsibility exhausting, but it is not. It is exhilarating. You are at the start of something together. You are moved by the bond.

*   *   *

I allowed myself complete freedom to choose the order in which I approached the authors on my shelf and, within each author’s work, freedom to determine the order of the novels. Something led my eye and hand to begin with One for the Devil by Etienne Leroux, a South African writing in the 1960s in Afrikaans. If one of my tasks, perhaps the simplest, the book reviewer’s task, was to decide if a book, however much its author had invested in it, deserved anyone else’s time to read, this one presented particular problems. It turned out to be a kind of novel that requires special standards of judgment. I had not heard of One for the Devil, but this English translation, published in 1968, featured an equivocal blurb from Graham Greene, who said that Leroux’s novels were too original ever to be very popular. “They tease, they trouble, they elude.” Other blurbs promised wit and a penetrating examination of life in South Africa.

I liked the writing from the start. The proprietor of a great estate in the South African wine country, Mr. Jock Silberstein, is out walking his property with his wife, always called “‘slim’ Mrs. Silberstein” to distinguish her from her mother-in-law. Above a series of spillways, elaborately conceived and described, in which water courses from one level to another through the mouths of carved, masklike faces down to a large pond, their dog, a setter, suddenly points. He raises his forepaw and stiffens into “the catatonic posture characteristic of its breed.” The prey he has located turns out to be a plastic swan that has blown off the swimming pool. The Silbersteins would always remember this moment as “a piece of kitsch on the mantelshelf of their memories.”

My enthusiasm for the prose style was quickly extinguished by some annoying, if minor, stylistic traits, just as someone who makes a good first impression at a party may turn you off within minutes by referring to himself in the third person or peppering his speech with French phrases. Leroux really did always call his character “‘slim’ Mrs. Silberstein,” and when he introduced a policeman, he was always called “Detective-Sergeant Demosthenes H. de Goede.” This Demosthenes had a severe stutter that prevented him from uttering a word. Was this the promised wit?

Then too, and worse, Leroux had no interest in narrative. People went here and there across the estate, Welgevonden, had this and that sighting or encounter, spoke, largely in eccentric monologues on very deep themes, and never did anything, until the final scene, when they did so much at once—a wrestling match, a dance, a bullfight, for goodness’ sake—that I had to suspect a symbolic intent. This, then, was one of those novels, once proudly called “experimental,” in which the reader was led in one direction or another only to be deprived of the expected resolution, while at the same time he or she was assaulted with meaning through analogy and equivalences. Like the setter pointing to a plastic swan when you thought he was pointing to the body you knew would be discovered floating in the pool, the book was always sending you on a wild-goose chase and asking you to be pleased by the plastic swan you found at the end of it.

Detective-Sergeant Demosthenes H. de Goede tries to find out who killed Lila, the girl whose body is floating in the swimming pool—a loose girl whom everyone, literally, had loved. There is a prime suspect, the retarded and giant grandson of the Silbersteins, Adam Kadmon Silberstein. But so far as I know, and I did finish the book, we never find out if the giant whose name invokes the first man and the first English poet really did kill the girl whose name is close to Leda, the woman raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, and if so, why, and if so, what significance the murder has. Indeed, on my own, unaided, I was unable even to guess what this book was about.

Certain genres hold themselves cheap. However good they are, however deeply they may affect us, they do not present themselves as more than entertainment. But some kinds of literature demand to be treated respectfully. The obligation is on the reader to live up to them and not so much on them to entertain the reader. What we call literary fiction is a genre with great aspirations. If a novel presents itself as serious, judging it becomes more complicated. That it isn’t enjoyable does not immediately disqualify it from having succeeded. Literary fiction can say, “You will learn to love me in time. My difficulties are there for a reason. They will challenge you, but you will learn from them and be changed for the better.” At first I did not realize that this was the case with One for the Devil. I thought it was a country-house mystery, a genre familiar to me—and beloved—because of Agatha Christie. But I was wrong. It was Serious Fiction. How did I know? Because nothing made sense. I did not have a clue what the author was going on about.

Who was Etienne Leroux? Why was Graham Greene his booster? The question was, of course, a sign of failure in itself. Both mine and the text’s. The text was supposed to be sufficient in itself. I was not supposed to have to go outside it for satisfaction. Nor, in the pre-Internet past, would one have been so readily tempted to look beyond the text for analysis or information. Such research would have involved a physical trip to a fairly large library and a tedious search in archived magazines and newspapers, encyclopedias, or such printed databases as Contemporary Authors. Now Contemporary Authors is online, and I can access it from home via a university library website. It took a little more Internet time than usual to find my guy because Etienne Leroux, it emerges, was a pseudonym. His real name was Stephanus Petrus Daniel Le Roux. Furthermore, although I know he died in 1989, Gale Research, which produces Contemporary Authors, does not, and considers him still alive in 2001, when his entry was last “updated.” Therefore a search by death date and name was ineffective.

In fact, Wikipedia, available with no special access, is more helpful in placing Etienne Leroux than Contemporary Authors. It tells me he was an influential Afrikaans author and a member of the Sestigers literary movement. Sestigers is hyperlinked, so I quickly learn that it refers to a group of writers in South Africa in the 1960s that included André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and Chris Barnard. What exactly did the Sestigers stand for as a literary movement? For that I have to go back to the university online library and Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Sestigers (“Sixtyers,” or writers of the 1960s), whose declared aim was “to broaden the rather too parochial limits of Afrikaner fiction.” In essence, this meant depicting sexual and moral matters and examining the political system in a way that rapidly antagonized the traditional Afrikaner reader.

I could see why Leroux’s writing antagonized traditional Afrikaners. It was artsy, self-conscious, pretentious, and—call me Philistine—it antagonized me. Wikipedia insisted on the importance of the Azazel myth in One for the Devil(Een vir Azazel in Afrikaans). I had no idea what the Azazel myth was. I’d assumed “Azazel” was the Afrikaans word for “devil,” but clicking on the hyperlink, I discovered that it refers to the rite of the scapegoat in rabbinical literature. According to Leviticus, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest, along with observing other rituals seeking God’s forgiveness for sin, chose two goats. One was for the Lord, and one was for Azazel. The one for the Lord was sacrificed in the temple, but the other one (known as the scapegoat) was elaborately endowed with all the sins of the people and then sent away to die in the wilderness. How did this apply to One for the Devil? Was Lila the offering for the Lord? Was Adam Kadmon Silberstein the scapegoat? Were the sins to be atoned for the sins of apartheid? No idea. Could this precious, labored novel really be politically motivated? More research was in order.

A typical entry in Contemporary Authors provides the facts about a writer’s life (dates of birth and death, list of publications with dates, and so on) followed by a section in which critical opinion on the writer’s work is summarized, often with quotations from contemporary (that is to say, ancient) reviews. The entry on Leroux quoted a review by Charles R. Larson, an American scholar specializing in African fiction, from 1969. Writing in theSaturday Review, Larson explained that Leroux’s social protest had to be allegorized, “steeped in mythology, and tortured with symbolism just obscure enough to prevent his works from being banned in a country where title alone has frequently been sufficient to lead to a book’s being censored.”

Here was the perspective I sought. Expecting political fiction to depict conflict realistically, as in Malraux or Steinbeck, I was confused by Leroux’s work, which is not like that at all. Mr. Larson helped me by pointing out that it was produced in a country that was virtually a police state, at a time of violence and fierce divisions in the culture. The evasiveness and portentous symbologizing, the refusal to depict a real place at a real time, which so grated on me, might be the author’s way of presenting unpopular views in a climate so hostile that he could have been punished for them. Obfuscation has political uses, and aggravating the middle class has often been a political tactic. In that way I could see the stultifying One for the Devil as an attempt “to broaden the rather too parochial limits of Afrikaner fiction.” I was in a world of secret messages and hidden meanings, people tapping in code on the walls of their prison cells, whereas I had expected to find myself in an Evelyn-Waugh-meets-Agatha-Christie country-house-weekend murder mystery. Moreover, I was back in the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate reading John Hawkes and John Barth outside of class. Cutting-edge fiction was highfalutin. The whole pop culture revolution, which legitimized enjoyable fiction—doing in “experimental” writers like Barth and Hawkes and preparing for Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides—had not happened yet.

As I learned about Leroux from outside sources, as I tried to see his work in historical perspective, I gained a respect I did not have while reading it. Here was a writer trying to breathe life into a traditional and close-minded culture. He did that by invoking, however ham-fistedly, great themes of Western civilization—the nature of evil, the force of guilt—and by using myths and structures he thought had the power to transcend banal circumstance and to ally his native culture with the ancient Greeks. If that is a tacky thing to do, it’s the same tacky thing James Joyce was doing in Ulysses.

The Leroux novel I had chosen to start with, perhaps attracted by the word “Devil” in the title, turned out to be the second of a trilogy. Reluctantly, knowing already that I would not enjoy it, I began the book that preceded it, Seven Days at the Silbersteins. Again, the narrative started well, with a young man, Henry van Eeden, of good but impoverished family, being selected to marry Salome Silberstein, an only child and heir to the Silberstein fortune. He is an appealing, well-meaning, but untried and somewhat naïve person who arrives at Welgevonden for a seven-day visit during which he will meet and get to know his bride-to-be. But day after day passes, each day ending with an elaborate party involving a different segment of the local population—the landowners and farmers, the intellectuals and artists, the workers—and Salome never appears. Each day follows the same pattern. Henry rises and bathes, walks the property with Jock Silberstein or someone else or by himself, has lunch, at which improbable monologues on stately themes are delivered, and whiles away the afternoon until the set-piece evening party, for which he almost invariably wears the wrong clothes.

By day three, I was skimming and skipping. I got it that he was not going to meet Salome. That was disappointing. But even more was the knowledge that I would have to go through the same sequence of rising, lunching, walking, and partying seven times. Even in my own life I do not have to endure that kind of routine. Why should I in a novel? Detective-Sergeant Demosthenes H. de Goede with his tiresome speech impediment was blessedly absent from this book, but the monologues his silence evoked in One for the Devil from a voluble friend of his were here in force.
I skimmed every chapter to see if Henry met Salome. I skimmed to see if anything happened. I read the set pieces. I kept dipping into the disquisitions on philosophical subjects to see if they would begin to interest me. That was the nature of my reading of this book.

We give the name “reading” to many different activities, and the only one that matters to me is the one in which attention is fiercely focused, each word has weight, and each sentence makes me more aware of the world I am reading about than the one in which I actually live. In this sense every successful reading experience for me is escapist. The word has no negative meaning. Reading Etienne Leroux, I was always aware of myself reading, constantly asking myself how much more I had to read. As I was the one making the rules—no one was standing over me forcing me to read Etienne Leroux—this involved an uncomfortable struggle with myself, between my will and my purpose (to read the whole library shelf) and my principal virtue, my ability to acknowledge and obey my own sources of pleasure.

From my point of view, the only bright note was a comic character, old Mrs. Silberstein, usually called the Duchess because of the airs she gives herself, who wanders about muttering Yiddish insults at Henry but finally embraces him and wishes him mazel tov. What was the significance of the Silbersteins’ being Jewish? I had no idea. Did Leroux mean us to see them sympathetically, as outsiders of some sophistication and culture in a world of yahoos? Or were they meant to epitomize the materialism of a materialistic culture? Or was it of no consequence, just a fact? Try as I might, I could find no internal evidence that directed me one way or another in this important question of how to view the Silbersteins’ Jewishness. Even by consulting Wikipedia and A History of Afrikaans Literature online, I still did not know.

My chosen shelf contained the last volume of Leroux’s trilogy The Third Eye, but nothing could induce me to read it, not even the knowledge (gleaned somewhere off the Internet) that Demosthenes H. de Goede is cured of his speech defect in this volume. And certainly not Newsweek’s Jack Kroll opining forty years ago, as quoted in Contemporary Authors, that in this novel Leroux rose above the trilogy’s previous treatments of South Africa’s social problems and racial tensions to deal with “the condition and ultimate destiny of human society.” I had not gotten all I might have out of Etienne Leroux, but I had given as much of myself to him as I was going to. No more of my life would be spent reading his work. I would have liked to know more about the man and more about South Africa, especially the effect of apartheid on literature, but that was a different thing from reading his books.
The first thing I learned from my experiment—aside from the weakness of my will or, by the same token, the strength of my impulse toward enjoyment—was that in the age of the Internet, it is very hard to stick with a book without consulting an outside source. Reading is more centrifugal than it used to be. Because the material is so readily available, you want to see the author’s biography and read the reviews of the work. You are even tempted to contact the author, who is only a Google search and some keystrokes away.

From time to time people contact me by Internet about something I’ve written. If they offer praise and thanks, I am happy. More often, however, the e-mail begins, “My discussion group is reading your book and I have been assigned to lead the discussion.” What follows is a request to suggest topics or to restate the book’s conclusions or to explain its personal meaning or, most often, to detail how I got the idea for it. This upsets me. Didn’t I write the book precisely to have conversations that transcended actual contact? Nevertheless, I found myself itching to contact someone about Etienne Leroux. No one I knew had read him, and in good conscience I could not ask anyone to. There was, however, Charles R. Larson, who in 1969 (when I had recently graduated from college) had reviewed One for the Devil for the Saturday Review, a magazine that ceased publication more than a quarter of a century ago. I googled Charles Larson and was amazed and happy to find that he was still teaching African literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Shamelessly, I e-mailed him. Kindly, he replied. He had not read Leroux in thirty years and didn’t remember the book he had reviewed. He certainly could not comment now on its importance. Kindly, too, he did not ask me what I was reading in 1969 and what I thought of it currently.

And now, in another of its manifestations or epiphanies, the Internet threw in my way an incredible document, which drew me closer to Leroux than either of the novels I had read. This was a YouTube film clip of his funeral in 1989, broadcast in Afrikaans on South African television. That I understood not a word of the broadcast did not matter. His death was TV news. The man meant a lot to South Africans. The images spoke for themselves: his study, lined with books; the covers of his novels, many translated into foreign languages; a page of manuscript in his handwriting, greatly worked over. Then, the funeral: his grieving family arriving at the church; other famous South African writers coming to pay their respects; black workers arriving in a segregated mass, one woman still wearing the gray-and-white uniform of domestic service. To my astonishment, the camera left the church and followed the coffin as it arrived at Leroux’s bleak ancestral homestead. Pallbearers carried the plain wooden box up a hill, where, their graves covered in shiny black granite, his parents already lay. The camera followed as the coffin was lowered into the grave and his family and friends threw in flowers. I was shocked to find myself, a stranger—a stranger who didn’t even like his writing—at the man’s graveside. The intimacy was terrifying and carried responsibility. Never again could I mention Etienne Leroux without feeling that I had been at his funeral and that I had a special relationship with him. If the quality of a work of art is measured by the quality of the experience we have encountering it, Leroux’s work was not worth much to me. I would never go back to it, I would never recommend it, whereas I have looked at that film clip more than once on the edge of tears.

Merely the fact that I checked out Leroux’s novels has changed their fate. Since almost all formulas for deciding whether to keep or discard books in a library depend on how often a book is taken out and when it was last removed from the stacks, my interest alone will give these volumes another five years or so of life in the valuable real estate of a Manhattan lending library. Leroux deserves at least that. I am not the one to rescue him from obscurity, however, and neither is Charles Larson, who had been so enthusiastic about him once. Does some future literary critic exist who can resurrect these books? Or will they sink back into the abyss of unread literature? After all, it has been only forty-four years since they appeared. When you think of Lucretius waiting for fifteen hundred years to be rediscovered, that does not seem long at all. On the other hand, some books have an impact at the moment of their publication and for their immediate audience that they can never have again. I suspect that is the case here. Politically, South Africa has moved on, and so has literary fiction. The shock of the new becomes the schlock of the familiar. But in a larger sense, so what? In his time, in his homeland, Leroux was revered and beloved. What difference does it make to him now, next to his parents, under black granite on a windswept hill, whether he is immortal?

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading
by by Phyllis Rose