December Reading

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Here’s what I read in December

1. The Human Stain by Philip Roth

For me, reading Philip Roth is like listening to the Smiths or rooting for the Steelers.  It’s just a natural thing for me to do.  But for the past three years, I have purposely avoided reading Philip Roth, instead forcing myself to read authors that I would normally pass by in favor of him, like Jane Austen or Evelyn Waugh.  But this December, after reading about his purported retirement (which I don’t buy, by the way), I thought it was fitting to read one of his later works that slipped through the cracks for me.
The Human Stain is a twin of sorts to American Pastoral, which might be my favorite novel of all time (don’t tell Hemingway.)  What more surprising than the fact that I haven’t read it is the accompanying fact that I never finished I Married A Communist, which comprise the so-called “American Trilogy.”  You’d think I wasn’t a Roth fan at all.  
Here’s a chart of all of Roth’s novels, showing which ones I have read, which I haven’t, and which I abandoned:

Books I’ve read
Books I haven’t read
Books not finished

Goodbye, Columbus
When She Was Good
Letting Go
Portnoy’s Complaint
My Life as a Man
Our Gang
The Breast
Zuckerman Unbound
I Married a
The Great American
The Anatomy Lesson
The Professor of
The Ghost Writer
Operation Shylock
The Prague Orgy
Sabbath’s Theatre
The Counterlife
American Pastoral
The Human Stain
The Humbling
The Dying Animal
The Plot Against
Exit Ghost

I loved reading The Human Stain.  Getting into the rhythm and cadence of Roth’s prose felt to me like tossing around a baseball after many months of winter.  As soon as that pristine white ball cracks in the pocket of your mitt for the first time, you forget all the days you’ve taken off from it.  
I feel fortunate to have read it only a few months after teaching Oedipus Rex and Antigone.  The novel takes the form of a Greek tragedy, with a 71-year old disgraced classics professor named Coleman Silk as the tragic hero.

Hamartia?  You betcha. Coleman Silk is sitting on a life-long secret that he can’t reveal to anyone, even though it might be his only chance for salvation (or, at, least, redemption).  You probably know the secret already, if you are at all familiar with the novel, but that doesn’t matter.  The novel is not about Coleman’s shocking secret, just as Oedipus Rex isn’t about Oedipus’ shocking history.  Like Oedipus Rex, The Human Stain is about the inescapability of fate.  In this case, it’s about his inability to outrun his real identity, and his inability to avoid his destruction.

Take this passage from the book.  This is Coleman’s mother speaking to him, but it might as well be Jocasta talking to Oedipus:

Now, I could tell you that there is no escape, that all your attempt to escape will only lead you back to where you began.  That’s what your father would tell you…. But for a young man like you, whom everybody falls for?  A good-looking, charming, clever young fellow with your physique, your determination, your shrewdness, with all your wonderful gifts…  Your special destiny will be special all right–but how?  Twenty-six years old–you can’t begin to know (140).

2. Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

Speaking of tragedies, this Christmas was the Christmas of Macbeth.  During the hectic weeks at the end of the year, I found a few hours to slip out of the house and read this tragedy in the Starbucks nearest my house.  (Thanks to many Christmas gifts, I may never pay for coffee again.)

Now, I don’t have any new ideas on Macbeth that haven’t been said by a million Shakespeareans out there already, so I will keep it down to just a few thoughts.  I enjoyed reading this tragedy more than any of the five or six tragedies I’ve read since beginning to teach AP literature.  Oedipus Rex and Antigone may have taught me more about the world than anything else I read this year, and Death of a Salesman was profound and moving, but none of them were as artistically satisfying as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.   Reading it was a joy, and I recommend it without reservations to anyone who needs to experience something of unquestioned genius.

When you are a teacher, sometimes you teach in your dreams.  It’s very annoying.  You’ll dream that you’re in class, teaching whatever lesson you have planned for the next day, and your students aren’t getting it.  So you try to express the same idea in a different way, or use a different example, and your kids still don’t understand.  And then you’ll wake up to find that it is two o’clock in the morning and that you’ve been stressing out about Macbeth in your sleep.

That’s what happened to me yesterday morning.  And it hit me–“Macbeth has murdered sleep.”  It’s true.

Here is Ian McKellan analyzing the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech from British television in 1979.  I wish I were half as eloquent in my classroom. 

One thought on “December Reading

  1. it's a wake-up call for me to realize i've never read a book by roth! i'm not sure how i've managed that, but it looks like i need to pick one up and add it to the tbr pile.

    i much prefer watching shakespeare to reading him, but finding faithful adaptations is hard.

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