cheeseblab's Reviews > The Great American Novel

The Great American Novel by Philip Roth
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Apr 29, 12

Read from March 20 to April 10, 2012, read count: 4

Funny story about this book: a literal lifetime ago (1978ish, I'm thinking--I supposed I could dig up the postcard [what postcard? be patient, read on]) to confirm, but that doesn't seem like something I want to devote a Sunday hour to), when I was a graduate student in English at the University of Illinois, I taught, under the omnibus rubric of Literature and Experience (Engl 106--kinda scary how clearly I remember stuff from then when I often can't remember while walking upstairs why I needed to walk upstairs), a course titled Baseball in Literature.

Now Engl 106, which was meant as forum in which grad students could develop and exercise pedagogical creativity, had several strict requirements, two of which were that the course reading list had to include (1) literature from across the entire era of canonical writing in English and (2) literature from both sides of the Pond separating the two major-league canonical-writing-in-English countries.

This presented a bit of a challenge for my course, in that Beowulf is tough to present in terms of Grendel's mother coming in from the bullpen to face the lefty-swinging epic hero, and in fact, even later generations of English literati showed a marked indifference to the great American game. But I managed a sufficiently persuasive argument to win an exemption of those requirements and was able to teach my course for two semesters. Third time around--which was the maximum you could teach a single course anyway--the committee refused to be swayed, but that was OK; it was a much better course in theory than it ever was in practice, my classrooms mostly populated by jocks and jock manqués who assumed that any course titled Baseball in Literature would make few actual intellecutual demands.

But why all this matters is that while ordering books for the course, I discovered that this book was out of print, both in cloth and paper. I scrounged up as many used copies as I could find in this pre-Amazon Marketplace world, but that was only 4 or 5 toward a projected need of 30, so, being young and idealistic and bereft of appropriate borders, I thought, "Why not write the author?" He probably had a box or two of books in his basement, and if I wrote a charming enough letter offering to buy them, he'd probably just ship to me gratis, flattered to be invited into my classroom.

I guess I must have written via his publisher; I certainly had no idea that he lived in faraway Cornwall, Connecticut, but that's where the gracious typed postcard was postmarked. Unfortunately, he couldn't help me, not, in fact, having any extra copies lying around; he had not, in fact, realized that the book was o.o.p., and while he did not exactly express gratitude for that information, I got the distinct impression that as soon as he dropped my card in the mail, he intended to phone his agent and/or editor.

So anyway, that's one of my youthful academician's brushes with greatness, along with the rejection letter from PMLA that included the reader's report by litcrit deity Wayne C. Booth, who remarked that while my essay was completely wrongheaded (that part was between the lines, but the next was explicit), he respected the author. I joked that I was going to have a T-shirt made with the legend RESPECTED BY WAYNE C. BOOTH.

But about the novel. Well, I'm inordinately fond of it, in part because it's sort of about baseball, in part for the extraliterary reasons outlined above, but my recollection of it was that it wasn't really very good, and nothing in this reading changed that assessment. I had, in fact, forgotten how drearily draggy the final third or so of the book is, Roth seeming to have run out of any notion what direction might make sense to take it--sort of like the final innings of a game when your team is down 11-2 and is just trying to get to 27 outs without anyone getting hurt. Still, baseball and literature fans have to be eternal optimists, else what's the point? So read it, really--what could it hurt?

Oh, by the way, a coda to the funny story: though I did acquire maybe 5 copies of the book, having my students circulate the copies & read and report on selected chapters, when I began my Roth project, I found that rather than having deaccessioned all but one copy, I had none at all. Which was part of my inspiration to get a New Haven Free Library card, whose copy of the 3rd volume of the Library of America's collection of Roth I actually read this from.
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