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The Human Stain

(Complete Nathan Zuckerman #8)

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  35,988 ratings  ·  2,369 reviews
It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town an aging Classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would astonish even his most virulent accuser.

Coleman Silk has a secre
Paperback, 361 pages
Published April 5th 2001 by Vintage (first published May 10th 2000)
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Stefania Lazar All three novels forming the American Trilogy are stand-alones. They are only considered a trilogy because they have a similar setting (New England/Ne…moreAll three novels forming the American Trilogy are stand-alones. They are only considered a trilogy because they have a similar setting (New England/New Jersey in the second half of the 20th century) and similar social themes.(less)
Judy Wallace I don't think the reader is meant to know who wrote the clytemnestra memo. The point that Roth was making was that once the lie is out it remains out …moreI don't think the reader is meant to know who wrote the clytemnestra memo. The point that Roth was making was that once the lie is out it remains out and will be repeated and repeated with nothing to rein it back. The email address could be tracked but what would be the point since the email was posted to the fac.discuss board, i.e., the entire faculty. Roth doesn't attribute the memo to Delphine but he does say Coleman's death was her salvation by allowing her to tell the lie in the first place. Zuckerman simply moves on by saying that in Athena, where the people are bored and jealous, the story will be told and retold because it is the nature of the people and the place.(less)

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Average rating 3.89  · 
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Jeffrey Keeten
Aug 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-to-film
”All he’d ever wanted, from earliest childhood on, as to be free: not black, not even white--just on his own and free. He meant no insult to no one by his choice, nor was he trying to irritate anyone whom he took to be his superior, nor was he staging some sort of protest against his race or hers. He recognized that to conventional people for whom everything was ready-made and rigidly unalterable what he was doing would never look correct. But to dare to be nothing more than correct had never be ...more
Jan 03, 2017 rated it it was ok
Here's what I know: if a book features some old dude fucking some younger lady, check the author's age. 100% of the time, he's the same age as the old dude.

The younger woman will be vulnerable. She will be attracted to the older man's security and wisdom. There is a power imbalance, and it's basically the same thing as when Tarzan saves Jane from the lion. It's embarrassing, immature wish-fulfillment. And even when it's written very well, it's boring.

This book is occasionally written very well,
Katie Lynch
Sep 03, 2007 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: not really anyone
Shelves: yuck
Hey Roth, I know you have a great vocabulary...Just tell me a damn story.

Let me explain: I just read a very positive review of this book stating that Roth has such an expansive vocabulary, and every word seems painstakingly chosen, etc. That is exactly what I hate about this book! A narrative is supposed to flow, not make you resolve to study the dictionary more fastidiously.

For the record, I have a pretty good vocabulary and I thorouoghly enjoy creative uses of the English language. But I des
Nov 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
See, I was an enormous fan of the Tony Hopkins/ Nicky Kidman film already. But incredibly, that adapatation was just the tip of an iceburg so rich, complex & incredible that is Philip Roth's masterpiece "The Human Stain." The film fails oh-so miserably to fulfill at least 40% of the emotional clout (which is significant and HEAVVVY) famously attributed to this, a gargantuan beauty of a book.

It seems that this late in the year, the magic wand waved by Literature is (constantly and repeatedly) sti
Sep 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shaming Censors of Academic Speech: A Pox on the PC Police
My favorite Roth novel. I will miss the lusty old tale-hound.

“I'm very depressed how in this country you can be told 'That's offensive' as though those two words constitute an argument.” Christopher Hitchens

Coleman Silk, a professor of classics at a local esteemed college, has been accused of racism by two African American students in one of his classes, after he notices upon calling roll that these two enrolled students never attend his
Nov 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Philip Roth dealing with serious topics at this novel
discrimination, shame, identity, and judging others
the human between the truth, rumors and illusions
how hard to truly know someone
and how hard to live in a circle of lying and anger
lying to be accepted in a discriminatory community, and being angry for doing so
Nov 05, 2012 rated it did not like it
The author sums it up perfectly on page 81
"You area a verbal master of extroadinary loquatiousness[P. Roth]. So Perspicatios. So fluent. A vocal master of the endless, ostentatious overelaborate sentence."


This book is the Jackson Pollock of our literary time. Just spatter everything all over the page and call it art. Roth goes on and on by using every single adjective he ever learned in his SAT class, in a row, then completely counters every argument he just made, so he can use all the oppo
Dave Schaafsma
I read Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint in college, and loved them. They were funny, especially in depicting the lusts and lives of young men, with literary flair. But I didn’t read him again for no particular reason until relatively recently. Maybe it was something to do with my feeling tired of reading the same Roth main character, book after book, an aggressive male consumed by lust. But then I happened to read the non-fiction Patrimony, about his relationship with his father, ...more
Michael Finocchiaro
A masterfully architected tale about race, shame, violence, and remembrance, The Human Stain is definitely one of Roth's masterpieces. From its first pages, the reader is drawn into the mystery of Coleman "Silky" Silk né Silkzweig and his tragic downfall. The characters here are vibrant and real, the descriptions terrifying at times but always captivating, I found it hard putting this book down as I was relentlessly driven to want to know what happened - the mark of truly great writing. If you h ...more
Jun 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2013
“The danger with hatred is, once you start in on it, you get a hundred times more than you bargained for. Once you start, you can't stop.”
― Philip Roth, The Human Stain


Reading Roth is almost a spooky, sexual experience. I say that knowing this will sound absurd, trite and probably hyperbolic. But with Roth, his words are imbued with an almost carnal power, a spectral courage, energy and life. IT is like watching an absurdly talented musician do things with an instrument/with sound that bends th
Paul Bryant
Oct 06, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: probably-never
So I watched the movie, and I really shouldn't have. To quote Pope Pius VII, it sometimes makes you wonder if you're on the right planet. Anthony Hopkins plays an extremely white black man! And the ever-crushingly beautiful Nicole Kidman plays an illiterate woman who's a janitor! Yes! And we're supposed to take this seriously! And the actor who plays the young Anthony Hopkins looks absolutely nothing like him! It's so insane. I believe they take a lot of drugs in Hollywood, and this movie appear ...more
Jun 30, 2016 rated it liked it
Agreed, there are some things about reading Philip Roth that are really irritating: his sometimes excessive wordiness, his fixation on elder men who are obsessed by sex (whether or not prostrate-related), his storylines that are regularly interrupted by the introduction of new characters with extensive biographical backgrounds, etc. But - after having read 4 works of Roth - I have to confess I'm really getting under his spell. I'm especially impressed by how deep Roth can plunge into the soul of ...more
Ivana Books Are Magic
Sep 12, 2021 rated it really liked it
The Human Stain is a wonderfully complex novel focusing of examination of race and identity, with some politics and human relationships thrown in the mix. The writing is chaotic, angry and bitter, but it's also brilliant. In many ways this novel was ahead of its time. The Human Stain is not without flaws, but it is the kind of book that makes you think- and in the end, it's what matters.

I read this novel about a decade ago, but recently I found myself thinking about it again. Sometimes a book
Vit Babenco
Apr 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
Has being human in modern human society become a stigma? Judging by the novel The Human Stain humanism in the contemporary society is considered to be some kind of social defect.
“He was not a firebrand or an agitator in any way. Nor was he a madman. Nor was he a radical or a revolutionary, not even intellectually or philosophically speaking, unless it is revolutionary to believe that disregarding prescriptive society's most restrictive demarcations and asserting independently a free personal cho
Aug 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Having watched the movie I believed the book wouldn't manage to keep my interest but I was wrong.
Coleman Silk is an interesting character and his story makes you wonder if somebody truly can be free if he leaves behind what he was and create himself from scratch and if the new life he'll create will have the outcome he wants.
Can someone really have a better life if he leaves behind his old life and everything he believed were obstacles to his success?
The other characters that surround Coleman Si
Jul 20, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
oh, phillip roth! you CARD. you IMP. no one makes me laugh like you.

around this time last year i was on vacation on the cape reading american pastoral, another roth novella of fun and good humor! (read brinda's perfect description for an idea of that one.) i ended up forgetting the book there, with about forty pages left to read, and i never bought a new copy. i didn't care that i hadn't finished it because I WAS SO EXHAUSTED. the book wasn't bad. the book was great. but reading a roth opus is
Nov 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american

America in 1998. Monica Lewinsky Bill Clinton sex scandal. Organic farming movement. Political correctness. Race. An ex professor, his lover, a war vet, his children. A secret.

This is the bookend to the America trilogy, American Pastoral (1970s) and I Married a Communist (1950s). This series paints his reflections on America over the last half century.

Gritty, turbulent and disturbing. The stories, like every Roth story, are raw and challenging. His language, genius. His candor, brutal
Jul 24, 2007 rated it really liked it
[warning: spoiler!]

The thing that attracts me about this novel is quite simply how it is told. The narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is also a character (albeit a relatively minor one although he grows in importance as the story continues). He is not, therefore, omniscient, although this becomes easy to forget. The novel is written as though he were omniscient, and then draws attention to this gap repeatedly at moments where Zuckerman explains who told him what, how he knows certain bits of informatio
Read By RodKelly
This is the one that should’ve won the Pulitzer!!!!
“When Free Speech Turns Into an Orwellian Nightmare” or “PC Culture in Academia”…

I’ve had some first and second-hand experience of that phenomenon. Well-meaning but utterly mis-guided people who find everything offensive, try to hush up people who disagree with them without seeing the enormous irony of using censorship tactics to keep those who think differently quiet. I have seen moral crusaders drag the names of people whose only fault was having a dark sense of humour through the mud, and use
Nov 15, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This novel was disappointing - I expected much more from it. The story details the life of an African American college professor who has been "passing" as white since he was in his late teens. He hid this fact from everyone he knew, including his wife and children. His secret begins to unravel when he refers to two absent students as "spooks." Because the students are black, the remark is deemed racist, when he had actually intended the word to mean "ghosts." The writing is extremely dull and ra ...more
Philip Roth at the top of his game. Each time I read one of his books I'm further impressed by his talent.

The Human Stain digs deep into racism and its attendant politics in the 20th century. A light-skinned negro decides to "pass" as white and to do so successfully, he separates himself from his family. He enlists in the Navy as "white", attends college as "white", and marries a white woman as "white". After a long, distinguished career as a college professor and dean, he uses the word "spooks"
Andrew Smith
Jul 26, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Set in New England, this book tells the story of a college professor accused of making a racist remark in one of his classes. The fact that what follows is patently unfair sets this book up as a commentary on extreme political correctness.

There is a lot of ground covered here - Vietnam, Clinton/Lewinsky, racism and ageing to name a few - and in typical Roth style it is rich, clever, complex and, at times, ranting. Not what I'd call a relaxing read but hugely worthwhile if you're in the mood.
robin friedman
Oct 12, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Roth's Human Stain

In a long writing career, Philip Roth has progressively deepened his themes and his understanding of human character as well as his skill at the novelist's craft. His novel, "The Human Stain" is both entertaining and thought-provoking. It is a worthy addition to American fiction of the early 21st century.

The title of the book sets forth its primary theme. A major part of human life is tied to human sexuality and to physicality. People ignore or downplay this aspect at their pe
SheAintGotNoShoes !

The only reason on earth I decided to read this book was because I had seen it on film a number of times with actors that I really like ( Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Nicole Kidman ) and thought the book might be really good. I was wrong - it was dreadful.

I had a taste of Mr Roth's ideas when I tried ( twice ) watching Portnoy's Complaint on dvd and being massively turned off by its crassness and schoolboy type tee-heeing over saying rude words that are there simply to shoc
I began reading Philip Roth as a teenager with Goodbye Columbus, and Five Other Stories. I remember being wowed by that experience and have continued reading Roth regularly throughout the years. After finishing The Human Stain, I counted: I have read thirteen of his novels and one short story collection. Some of them have really resonated with me and others have been just okay. While much time has passed since I read many of them, I am confident in saying that The Human Stain is the best Philip ...more
The danger with hatred is, once you start in on it, you get a hundred times more than you bargained for. Once you start, you can't stop.”

“We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen - there’s no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It’s in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark.”

Description: It is 1998, the year in wh
Apr 16, 2017 rated it liked it
The Human Stain is a schizophrenic, if not unevenly written novel. It is as though it is written by different people, with variable success. While there is a central narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, through whose eyes and ears, we learn about the anti-hero Coleman Silk, there are different voices that make up the whole story. The most annoying one is the ranter, who keeps going on and on about Bill Clinton and his sexual indiscretions. The tirades are tiresome and irrelevant to the plot. The other vo ...more
Brendan Monroe
Jul 25, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: america
This is one of those books that I feel I should have rated higher. At least 4 stars. But I simply can't bring myself to do it. Philip Roth is a terrific writer and this is often cited as perhaps his best book. And the overarching themes in this book are inspired. The setting also, in the reemergent twilight of America's fixation on sex and purity like a Puritan hangover, couldn't have been better. Even the title, 'The Human Stain' plays so wonderfully on the stain of an all too human sort left b ...more
Jan Rice
Feb 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
I can't remember when I read this; let's say circa 2004. Parts were underwhelming--maybe the part about the protagonist's affair with the younger woman. Parts, though, were excruciating--the part about what the protagonist has to endure to "pass," and what he would have given up had he not taken that course. Intolerable choices! Remembering that part I'll change to four stars. I also remember how the protagonist chose to marry a Jewish woman with wild hair--so that if his children didn't end up ...more
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Philip Milton Roth was an American novelist. He gained early literary fame with the 1959 collection Goodbye, Columbus (winner of 1960's National Book Award), cemented it with his 1969 bestseller Portnoy's Complaint, and has continued to write critically-acclaimed works, many of which feature his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. The Zuckerman novels began with The Ghost Writer in 1979, and in ...more

Other books in the series

Complete Nathan Zuckerman (9 books)
  • The Ghost Writer
  • Zuckerman Unbound
  • The Anatomy Lesson
  • The Prague Orgy
  • The Counterlife
  • American Pastoral (The American Trilogy, #1)
  • I Married a Communist (Complete Nathan Zuckerman #7/The American Trilogy, #2)
  • Exit Ghost (Complete Nathan Zuckerman, #9)

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