Look inside Philip Roth's personal library

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Look inside Philip Roth's personal library
One of the many flowers that was found pressed inside books about plant species owned by Philip Roth, at the Newark Public Library in Newark, N.J., June 2, 2021. The author of “Goodbye, Columbus” and “The Human Stain” left several thousand books, many of them with notes or letters, to the Newark Public Library. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Elizabeth A. Harris and Vincent Tullo

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Philip Roth was not precious about the books in his personal library.

When he died in 2018, he left behind more than 7,000 marked-up paperbacks and hardcovers, most of them tucked into the built-in shelves of his Upper West Side apartment and Warren, Connecticut, home. He donated them to the Newark Public Library, and when Nadine Sergejeff, the supervising librarian of what would become the Philip Roth Personal Library, looked at what she had, she found treasures.

The books were crammed with marginalia, as if Roth was having conversations with the writers or making cranky observations about inconsistencies in their work. But the books were also stuffed with letters — sometimes correspondence between Roth and the authors, other times messages that had nothing to do with the book. Sergejeff also found shopping lists, travel itineraries, pressed flowers, candy wrappers, toothpicks and straws.

“All the stuff you find at the bottom of a purse,” said Rosemary Steinbaum, a Newark library trustee. “He really used his library. He really lived with it and used it.”

The collection, now housed in an elegantly restored room in the Newark Public Library, opens to the public this week. Roth, who was born in Newark and frequently wrote about it, chose the location, selecting what used to be a storage space for art books.

There, visitors will see about 3,700 books from his personal library, including a four-volume set about the history of presidential elections, multiple copies of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and a marked-up edition of “Incredible iPhone Apps for Dummies” on one of the highest shelves.

The library could be of particular interest now, given the release and ensuing controversy surrounding Roth’s authorized biography, and the desire by some scholars for more access to correspondence and other documents providing insight into his life and work.

Here are some of the items on display.

— Roth owned several typewriters, including an Olivetti Underwood model, although Sergejeff said he also wrote his books in longhand and at times on a computer.

— Roth once asked his brother, Sanford, an artist who was known as Sandy, to draw the floor plan of their childhood home. The drawing, which Roth referred to while writing his 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America,” was displayed on his living room wall in Manhattan.

— When Roth was a camp counselor at Pocono Highland Camps, Steinbaum said, he had a summer romance with a fellow counselor named Micki Ruttenberg. She told Steinbaum that one day at camp, after she had recited a stanza from the Persian poem “Rubiyt of Omar Khayym” in an effort to impress him, Roth, who was 19 at the time, presented her with a list titled “how to make Micky [sic] an intellectual!” His recommendations included George Orwell, Truman Capote and Marcel Proust.

— Roth’s mother, Bess Roth, compiled newspaper articles and other clippings about him. Only one of her scrapbooks is open on display, but the library has seven of them.

— Visitors can see the top hat that novelist Saul Bellow was wearing the night he accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976.

— A copy of Henry Miller’s “The Tropic of Cancer” contains Roth’s Post-it notes and markings.

— Notes inside the dust jacket of “The Nightmare Decade,” by Fred J. Cook, include character names for what would become Roth’s 1998 novel, “I Married a Communist.”

— Some of the furniture from Roth’s Connecticut writing studio is also on view, including his standing desk and Eames chair.

— Dried flowers were found pressed inside books about plant species. Roth and Julia Golier, one of his literary executors, used to take walks with the books around his Connecticut home so they could identify what they saw.

— Most of the notes on the galley proof for Roth’s 1983 novel “The Anatomy Lesson” were his own, but at least one marking was made by Joel Conarroe, a writer and longtime friend of Roth’s, who donated it.

— Roth did not appear to like an edition of “Down and Out in Paris and London.” Next to a quote from The New York Times Book Review on the cover, Roth wrote, “Stupid quotation.” On the back, where the jacket copy described George Orwell’s book as “this unusual novel — in good part autobiographical,” Roth scrawled, “It’s not a novel.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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