Props! Novelist Philip Roth and the Newark Public Library bring his books ‘home’

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Unfair. I’m glad Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his song lyrics, veritable poetry, but the the judges should have honored Philip Roth eons ago.

At least the Newark Public Library is showing Roth-love, and vice versa. A Scene Right Out of Philip Roth: His Books Come Home to Newark’s Library—that’s the headline of a New York Times article telling of Roth’s donation of his 4,000-book personal library to the institution he immortalized in his novella Goodbye Columbus. From the Times:

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: Salinger, Bellow, Malamud, Kafka, Bruno Schulz. Many of the volumes are heavily underlined and annotated. “It’s like he’s having a dialogue with them,” [Library Trustee Rosemary Steinbaum] said.

“I’m 83, and I don’t have any heirs,” Mr. Roth said, explaining why he decided to give the library away. “If I had children it might be a different story. It’s not a huge library, but it’s special to me, and I wanted it preserved as it was, if only for historical interest: What was an American writer reading in the second half of the 20th century.”

Could this be a model for other writers and cities—not just the donations but the loving way the library will display them with the help of the architect Henry Myerberg?

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Philip Roth, 1973

Of course, not every town comes with a world-famous novelist. Also, I can imagine challenges for, say, New York or Chicago, with all the literary greats and all rooms to build. Must it really come to Saul Bellow vs.  rivals? Not to mention the fact that most novelists’ personal libraries do not remain intact after their  deaths. And then there is a pesky problem in the future. What to do about the authors who read and wrote electronically?

I confess. This is one downside of ebooks and one reason why I can appreciate the usefulness of paper editions for helping to keep books on people’s minds even it can happen through many other ways.

Just the same, done well, ebooks could make reading more popular, given all the cell phones out there and the ability of disciplined people to enjoy even classics on them. Not to mention other platforms such as tablets and E Ink readers with the ability to blow up the type. While honoring the old, let’s look ahead. Philip Roth in the past despaired that few people read fiction, and in 2011 he said he himself had stopped even though he still enjoyed nonfiction. A journalist-critic-editor-writer named Sarah Weinman speculated that it was due to his age. Harder to engage? But must the right fiction always be a challenge, no matter what your age?

I hope that Philip Roth changes his mind if he hasn’t already. Meanwhile the Roth room ideally can help people of all ages discover or rediscover Goodbye Columbus and other masterpieces. And if someday an electronic version of the Newark collection can go online, complete with Roth’s annotations, then so much the better. Needless to say, a national digital library endowment could help support efforts of this kind.

Below: The trailer for the Goodbye Columbus movie, which, like the book, features Neil Klugman, a library clerk courting the well-off Brenda Patimkin, whose mother inquires about “the library business.” Some critics say Roth’s books tend to be too complicated to work as films. Not necessarily, if a screenwriter is a good fit and appreciates the differences between the two media. The Goodbye Columbus adaptation is brilliant as a popular work and perhaps more. Alas, the early reaction to the new American Pastoral film isn’t as favorable as it could be, but maybe that will change with time.

(Cross-posted from TeleRead.)

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