Philip Roth (RIP) Creates a List of the 15 Books That Influenced Him Most

Image by Thier­ry Ehrmann, via Flickr Com­mons

We stand at a piv­otal time in his­to­ry, and not only when it comes to pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics and oth­er tragedies. The boomer-era artists and writ­ers who loomed over the last sev­er­al decades—whose influ­ence, teach­ing, or patron­age deter­mined the careers of hun­dreds of successors—are pass­ing away. It seems that not a week goes by that we don’t mourn the loss of one or anoth­er tow­er­ing fig­ure in the arts and let­ters. And along with the eulo­gies and trib­utes come crit­i­cal reap­praisals of often straight white men whose sex­u­al and racial pol­i­tics can seem seri­ous­ly prob­lem­at­ic through a 21st cen­tu­ry lens.

Sure­ly such pieces are even now being writ­ten after the death of Philip Roth yes­ter­day, nov­el­ist of, among many oth­er themes, the unbri­dled straight male Id. From 1969’s sex-obsessed Alexan­der Port­noy—who mas­tur­bates with raw liv­er and screams at his ther­a­pist “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!”—to 1995’s aging, sex-obsessed pup­peteer Mick­ey Sab­bath, who mas­tur­bates over his own wife’s grave, with sev­er­al obses­sive men like David Kepesh (who turns into a breast) in-between, Roth cre­at­ed mem­o­rably shock­ing, frus­trat­ed Jew­ish male char­ac­ters whose sex­u­al­i­ty might gen­er­ous­ly be described as self­ish.

In a New York Times inter­view at the begin­ning of this year, Roth, who retired from writ­ing in 2012, addressed the ques­tion of these “recur­rent themes” in the era of Trump and #MeToo. “I haven’t shunned the hard facts in these fic­tions of why and how and when tumes­cent men do what they do, even when these have not been in har­mo­ny with the por­tray­al that a mas­cu­line pub­lic-rela­tions cam­paign — if there were such a thing — might pre­fer.… Con­se­quent­ly, none of the more extreme con­duct I have been read­ing about in the news­pa­pers late­ly has aston­ished me.”

The psy­cho­log­i­cal truths Roth tells about fit­ful­ly neu­rot­ic male egos don’t flat­ter most men, as he points out, but maybe his depic­tions of obses­sive male desire offer a sober­ing per­spec­tive as we strug­gle to con­front its even ugli­er and more vio­lent, bound­ary-defy­ing irrup­tions in the real world. That said, many a writer after Roth han­dled the sub­ject with far less humor and com­ic aware­ness of its bathos. From where did Roth him­self draw his sense of the trag­i­cal­ly absurd, his lit­er­ary inter­est in extremes of human long­ing and its often-destruc­tive expres­sion?

He offered one col­lec­tion of influ­ences in 2016, when he pledged to donate his per­son­al library of over 3,500 vol­umes to the Newark Pub­lic Library (“my oth­er home”) upon his death. Along with that announce­ment, Roth issued a list of “fif­teen works of fic­tion,” writes Talya Zax at For­ward, “he con­sid­ers most sig­nif­i­cant to his life.” Next to each title, he lists the age at which he first read the book.

“It’s worth not­ing,” Zax points out, “that Roth, who fre­quent­ly fields accu­sa­tions of misog­y­ny, includ­ed only one female author on the list: Colette.” Make of that what you will. We might note oth­er blind spots as well, but so it is. Should we read Philip Roth? Of course we should read Philip Roth, for his keen insights into vari­eties of Amer­i­can mas­culin­i­ty, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, aging, Amer­i­can hubris, lit­er­ary cre­ativ­i­ty, Wikipedia, and so much more besides, span­ning over fifty years. Start at the begin­ning with two of his fist pub­lished sto­ries from the late 50s, “Epstein” and “The Con­ver­sion of the Jews,” and work your way up to the 21st cen­tu­ry.

via The For­ward

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

What Was It Like to Have Philip Roth as an Eng­lish Prof?

Philip Roth Pre­dicts the Death of the Nov­el; Paul Auster Coun­ters

Philip Roth on Aging

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (7)
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  • David says:

    Good piece. Just a quick quib­ble, Phillip Roth was­n’t a baby boomer. The old­est boomer is in their ear­ly sev­en­ties right now.

  • Georgi says:

    One more nit­pick, Mick­ey Sab­bath does not mas­tur­bate over his own wife’s grave, he mas­tur­bates over his lover Drenka’s grave.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Ah, I mis­re­mem­bered that detail, thanks (impos­si­ble, how­ev­er, to for­get the scene).

  • Kathryn says:

    Quite so. Roth was born in the 1930s, well before the gen­er­al­ly accept­ed start of the Baby Boom in 1944. He was part of the “Silent Gen­er­a­tion,” those born in the late 1920s up through World War II. He was old enough to remem­ber the war, which to me is a clear mark of being pre-Boomer.

  • Benjamin Harrison says:

    I was tempt­ed not to con­tin­ue read­ing this after the author described Philip Roth as a baby boomer, despite the fact that he was born a full six years before the Sec­ond World War! I mean, for Christ’s sake, words and phras­es have mean­ings! They don’t just exist in a vac­u­um where you can use them to mean any­thing you like! Any­way, of course, I did read it, because it’s Philip Roth list­ing 15 books he was influ­enced by. How could I not? But seri­ous­ly, maybe get an edi­tor or some­thing?

  • Paul says:

    Until the age of 24, he read only Amer­i­can writ­ers. Lat­er Euro­pean ones. The old­er you are, the wis­er you are to say.

  • Anthony Marriner says:

    As an Eng­lish­man I have been total­ly absorbed by the world of Roth and his char­ac­ters. Jew­ish life in Newark, the loca­tion of such a life in Amer­i­can his­to­ry and the chal­lenges of liv­ing such a life were an alien world to me and I sus­pect mil­lions of us here in Britain and indeed, the rest of Europe. My first encounter was read­ing Amer­i­can Pas­toral, some­time before 2006; I know this as I began to keep a list of every­thing I read start­ing that year. I men­tion that for two rea­sons, first because in look­ing at Roth’s own list I wish I could recall what I had read in my for­ma­tive years and sec­ond­ly because I can see that whilst wide­ly read in terms of Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture, the last 12 years has seen me con­sume more by Amer­i­can authors then any oth­er. To ref­er­ence some of the ear­li­er com­ments then, I find that I was like­ly 43 when I dis­cov­ered Roth, I was also pos­sessed of sim­i­lar mas­cu­line angst and increas­ing­ly so as I age and Roth has pro­vid­ed a voice for that jour­ney. To find that he can speak for and to me, a younger man, from anoth­er cul­ture, on anoth­er con­ti­nent, about an unknown exis­tence, sim­ply under­scores his great­ness in being able to tran­scend those dif­fer­ences and present the com­plex­i­ty and fal­li­bil­i­ty of a male mind.

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