In a new subgenre of books about books, authors undertake reading stunts to prove that reading still matters. In “The Shelf,” Phyllis Rose reads through a more or less random shelf of library books. She compares her voyage to Ernest Shackleton’s explorations in the Antarctic.
...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 in The 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.