Roth’s Reading Room, and Other News


On the Shelf

A postcard of the Newark Public Library.

  • Today in hometown heroism: Philip Roth, having recovered from yet another year without a Nobel, is donating his book collection to the Newark Public Library. Young readers will be able to flip through them and look for the dirty bits—just as he once did—for generations to come. (The library will likely see an uptick in visitors, as well. T-shirt idea: I VISITED THE NEWARK PUBLIC LIBRARY BEFORE PHILIP ROTH’S BOOKS WERE THERE.) “Roth’s library, some 4,000 volumes, is now stored mostly at his house in northwest Connecticut, where it has more or less taken over the premises … The books will be shelved in Newark exactly as they are in Connecticut—not a window into Mr. Roth’s mind exactly, but physical evidence of the eclectic writers who helped shape it … He chose Newark, he added, because like a lot of people of his generation, especially those who had attended Weequahic High School, he retained a singular attachment to his old hometown. ‘It may also be true of people who grew up in Cleveland or Detroit,’ he said. ‘I don’t know. I do know that kids who graduated between when Weequahic opened in the ’30s and the great population shift that occurred in the 1960s remain very devoted to their memories and to the school.’ ”
  • Claire Jarvis on reading Sarah Waters—whose latest novel, The Paying Guests, has a graphic abortion scene—while pregnant: “For the past two decades, Sarah Waters has been the best-known contemporary novelist of women’s sexual history. Her novels all develop, in some way, from her earlier work as a researcher focused primarily on lesbian and gay historical fiction. Her first, Tipping the Velvet, which Waters conceived of while writing her Ph.D. thesis, details the hidden-in-plain-sight world of what we would now call queer life in Victorian London. An unexpected success when it was published in 1998, it was followed by two more Victorian pastiches, Affinity and Fingersmith, both bodice-ripping lesbian reworkings of nineteenth-century sensation novels. Waters’s three most recent books, which have been set in the twentieth century, are moodier, and more self-consciously literary, combining the suspense plotting of her earlier work with domestic fiction’s absorption in the details of everyday life. To these genre pastiches, Waters adds graphic descriptions of the bodily experiences of people—particularly women—in the past, making the blood, dirt, and pleasure of those lives as explicit as possible.” 

  • The Sellout’s Booker Prize is the culmination of a long, strange journey through the UK publishing industry: “His rumbustious, lyrically poetic novel was turned down, his agent confirms, by no fewer than eighteen [UK] publishers … ‘I get hurt when I meet editors who tell me about books they really liked but couldn’t publish. I don’t know what that means,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I romanticize—I go back even to the Harlem renaissance, when people would say, “This book isn’t going to sell but I believe in you.” I think there’s still some of that in publishing. I hope there’s still some of that.’ ”
  • On the occasion of Brian Wilson’s second memoir, Ben Ratliff looks at the unlikely longevity of the Beach Boys as cultural icons: “Time and social change have been rough on the Beach Boys. Their best-known hits (say, ‘California Girls,’ ‘Help Me, Rhonda,’ ‘I Get Around’) are poems of unenlightened straight-male privilege, white privilege, beach privilege. It is hard to imagine that they helped anyone toward self-determination or achieving their social rights. Brian Wilson’s great integrative achievement as a songwriter and producer was absorbed in bits and pieces by others—Paul McCartney especially—but it mostly worked for him alone. In their rhythm and humor the Beach Boys sound squarer all the time compared to Motown, the Beatles, and the Stones, and a lot of Phil Spector.”
  • Art Spiegelman is reissuing his late friend Si Lewen’s graphic novel The Parade, because that’s what friends do: “I first met Si when he was a spirited and elfin ninety-four-year-old who still spent most of his waking hours painting—as he had since childhood. I’d stumbled onto his book The Parade, from 1957, while researching wordless picture stories—obscure precursors of today’s graphic novels that briefly flourished between the two World Wars. The Parade, obscure even by this genre’s standards, was drawn shortly after the Second World War, but was conceived while Lewen, a Polish Jewish refugee from Germany, was a member of an élite force of native German-speaking G.I.s who were in Buchenwald right after it was liberated … The Parade is a modernist dirge of a book that still packs an emotional wallop, telling the story of mankind’s recurring and deadly war fever.”