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Discovering the world of literature


School is a wonderful invention
Philip Roth Writer
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The school was just a three minute or five minute walk down the street, at the end of our street.  It was a brand new school, and I just took to school: it just seemed to be the most wonderful invention, you know.

I remember being particularly intrigued — I must have been first grade — by the frieze, the alphabet frieze that ran around the top of the blackboards. The capital A, the small a, the capital B, the small b, and I was riveted by it, really, and so I learned to read and write.  And I was a smart little fellow, and so I skipped grades. I don't know if they still have that in American schools, but if you were at the top of your class they moved you ahead. And so I skipped once in the fourth grade, and I skipped once in the eighth grade.

There it is. I think the teachers were probably pretty good for that era, I don't remember much from then — I learnt to read. And in about fourth grade I discovered the library; I don't mean the school library, I don't even think there was a school library, but the local branch library of the big Newark Public Library. Now, we didn't have any books in my house. There were… I can think of four books... four books that were in the house while I was in grade school, and I know the four books because I read them. There they were, and I read them. They were all books that had been given to my mother or father — I think my father – when my father had been in the hospital. He had a serious illness in the early 1940s and people had brought him some books to read. My father was a newspaper reader, he wasn't a book reader, so home these books came. They were Sir Walter Scott — just what my father needed — Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, and another one whose name I can't remember. Another book was by William L Shirer, it was called Berlin Diary. I said I could remember the four, but I suppose I can't. But I read them; I didn't know what I was reading.

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: The Newark Public Library, Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, Berlin Diary, Walter Scott, William L Shirer

Duration: 2 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013