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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Reading Philip Roth

Philip Roth is the kind of writer that, when I desperately need a “go-to” book — for a trip, to follow a “great read”, or when I want to know what it feels like to compose a great sentence — he’s the writer whose books I’ll shuffle and pick one at random. Roth’s humor, his fully-realized and multi-dimensional characters, his crisp dialogue that gets to the heart of the subject and scene, always captivates, exhilarates, and inspires me.


july 11, 2011

“Standing singly at the Wall, some rapidly swaying and rhythmically bobbing as they recited their prayers, others motionless but for the lightning flutter of their mouths, were seventeen of the world’s twelve million Jews communing with the King of the Universe. To me it looked as thought they were communing solely with the stones in whose crevices pigeons were roosting some twenty feet above their heads. I thought (as I am predisposed to think), ‘If there is a God who plays a role in our world, I will eat every hat in this town’—nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be gripped by the sight of this rock-worship, exemplifying as it did to me the most awesomely retarded aspect of the human mind. Rock is just right, I thought: what on earth could be less responsive? Even the cloud drifting by overhead, Shuki’s late father’s ‘Jewish cloud,’ appeared less indifferent to our encompassed and uncertain existence. I think that I would have felt less detached from seventeen Jews who openly admitted that they were talking to rock than from these seventeen who imagined themselves telexing the Creator directly; had I known for sure it was rock and rock alone that they were addressing, I might even have joined in. [. . .] Of course, to be as tenderized by a block of stone as a mother is by her ailing child needn’t really mean a thing. You can go around kissing all the walls in the world, and all the crosses, and the femurs and tibias of all the holy blessed martyrs ever butchered by the infidel, and back in your office be a son of a bitch to the staff and at home a perfect prick to your family. Local history hardly argued that transcendence over ordinary human failings, let alone the really vicious proclivities, is likely to be expedited by pious deeds committed in Jerusalem.”

“The result was that for the first time in my life I felt some sort of power in her (as well as some womanly appeal) and wondered what I could possibly achieve persisting on playing the domestic peacemaker. Wasn’t everyone happier enraged? They were certainly more interesting. People are unjust to anger—it can be enlivening and a lot of fun.”

– Philip Roth, “The Counterlife”

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