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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Couples Reading

I’ve started reading Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” (1992) and Asia is into the late first-quarter of Roth’s “Letting Go” (1961). This is not a battle, and we refrain from trading quotes (even though I recently re-read LG). Roth’s books, for us, are dense with human feeling and psychology, not to mention many beautiful sentences and ways of describing small parts of life we all know but often overlook. These happen on every page, at least once.

Sometimes we’ve read the same book, but not at the same time (no point in owning twin copies, considering the number of books now collected). When we do this, the person who’s already finished the book often asks the present reader “Where are you now?” or “What’s happening to …?” with that anticipation and look of the dramatic irony even the characters in the book can’t match. But we never ask “Haven’t you gotten to the part about …?” We’re ultra sensitive to never giving away what’s to come, even the smallest moment, or snatch of dialogue. This has been 99% successful.

Couples who read together love together. Before reading time begins, there’s some short chat to set the excitement level; after our couple’s reading has run its allotted time, a recap of emotions and character traits, or “what it all means” lets out the anxiety of what’s been discovered. I use “anxiety” because reading Roth — or any strong writer — is a time spent in media dramatica and sometimes one simply needs to get out of that world and into your own. Few enough authors do this to us on the level Roth is capable of inducing. The tension his characters create is incredibly real. You hate them, pity them, envy their audacity, despise their stupidity, and laugh with them. Seldom do you want to laugh at them; they are that real in their conflict, and only a jerk laughs at people for that.

We haven’t owned a television since coming together, and neither of us watched that thing for years before our coupling. There’s something stronger in a relationship that has books over television; I truly believe this. Because, while both mediums keep you occupied solo, the wealth of conversation that can be mined from books far outweighs whatever appears on television. Even the good TV programs have only so much in-depth-ness to them; their lack of individual character mental introspection leaves too much left untold. That’s the true failure of television, or even theater. Only Shakespeare’s drama can get away with soliloquies anymore.

Roth has stopped writing novels. Fortunately, I’ve not read all that he’s written. But almost. Yet there are other books of his that I haven’t read in ten years, or even twenty. Their impression stays with me like embossed paper; but re-reading good literature is essential, one of the true ways we pull more and ever greater pleasure from the human experience. Roth wrote more than 25 books, which makes for a good library if one only has a single author’s complete works to take with him on a desert island.

Or to take with you into your living room, where your mate is already on the couch curled up with her book, saving a spot for you under the blanket.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

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”

Books Read Lately: Roth, Murdoch, Updike

It seems like I’ve used these names before in this column of the last year or so. Okay, paint me a guilty primrose, or magenta (wink-wink, Asia!) …

These authors have lots to say and the imagination to tell what that is — pain, stupidity, sex, women & men, love & livid hate, all the great things in life! — in stories that show people at their worst or near-best.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

What would have happened to America, and American Jews, if Charles Lindberg had become president as WWII raged in 1940? Roth uses historical and fictional people to realize a potential firestorm for liberty and the conscience of a nation. And Roth takes all this in from the eyes of a nine-year-old boy living in Newark, NJ. This is significant because the wonder of life, and awareness of society’s realities, begin to intersect at this age. This counter-factual history has basis in reality, woven into the tapestry of the common citizen’s hopes and barriers.

The Philosopher’s Pupil by Iris Murdoch

A cast of misfits and near-do-wells, eminent minds and vengeful hearts, makes this story of a small spa town in Surrey a comedy of errors, a drama of passions, and nexus of past and present in full fire. When the famous scholar and teacher returns home, everyone in town wonders if this will be their chance to rub elbows with the greatest mind in modern philosophy, and one man, the pupil, wants validation. But the philosopher has other ideas.

Rabbit at Rest by John Updike

The forth (and final) book in the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom has a consistency with its previous books (one book for each decade of this “life” … beginning in 1959-60) that makes reading the quartet a lasting and thoroughly gripping saga of an American family. Here, Rabbit is retired from the car sales business, and enjoys half-year “rest” in Florida. But his fuck-up son drags Harry back into the business, and things unravel from there. But this is Rabbit Angstrom, whose exploits on the basketball court in his high-school salad days has given him ways to cope, and his duck/dodge/hide attitude towards life moves the story from hilarity to pityingly foolish moves to put a house back together.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.