Philip Roth, Part 1

Tracking the fact that you’re reading Roth on Goodreads and then blogging about it feels like one of the first signs of the nerd apocalypse

I’ve started tracking my reading and general book stuff on Goodreads. This does feel like the intersection of two more forms of nerdiness. I don’t know whether to be proud or go lie down and wait until the urge to update Goodreads passes.

By the time this is posted, I hope to be finished with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, one of the best books that I have read. If you’re surprised by that statement, then you know how I felt before reading the book. I feel like this is a good time to mention that Roth died a couple days ago, when I was about two-thirds of the way through his novel. Life constantly amazes me with coincidences.

My entire experience of Roth prior to this book involved one movie and two books. I saw Goodbye, Columbus about a decade or more ago and thought it was a fun little riff on The Graduate. I like Richard Benjamin, so that was fun. Much longer ago, I received a box of paperback books from my brother and sister-in-law, who were looking for somewhere to dispose of them. I was a very appreciative recipient, especially as the top layer was Stephen King and Peter Straub. I think I skipped right over the whole Flowers in the Attic series, but I remember the covers. Further down, I found Portnoy’s Complaint. The cover blurb made it clear that inside would be found some naughty bits, so I skimmed for those. The same was true of Goodbye, Columbus and some Joseph Heller.

Almost as nerdy as getting a doctorate in creative writing so you can study comic books based on Jane Austen’s works

In effect, I read most of Portnoy’s Complaint. I understood that there were jokes included because some of the situations were ridiculous. The problem was that I read it out of order, so it came across as a series of odd vignettes. I was not impressed to the degree that the cover blurbs suggested that I should be. I had just started to notice that there was more than one great American novel, so I did get the notion of puffery.

Moreover, I was doubtless unprepared for the subject matter. While I was born on the East Coast, I was raised in the Midwest with all the experiences of a suburban life. It wasn’t that the book failed to ring true. The problem was that it rang no truer than any science fiction novel. This may not truly have been an East Coast thing. I didn’t get a lot of stuff back then. (Maybe I don’t now, but at least back then I fell like I was drowning with inexperience.)

The net effect was that I avoided reading any other Roth since those premature days. Sure, I’d tug one of his books off the shelf at the library and skim it for old times sake. All that accomplished was a strange sense of unease coupled with a failure to focus on the writing.

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