Is author Philip Roth’s collection of books what the Newark Public Library needs? : NPR

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Acclaimed author Philip Roth has chosen to donate his personal collection of books to the struggling Newark Public Library. But some wonder if books are what makes a library relevant in 2016.



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Writer Philip Roth recently said that after his death his personal collection of books would be donated to the Newark, NJ Public Library. Collections of books by famous authors often go to elite colleges and universities. It is a city that fights against poverty and unemployment. Noel King from our Planet Money team has the story.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Philip Roth is one of America’s greatest living authors. He wrote “American Pastoral”, “Portnoy’s Complaint”, “The Human Stain”. He is also a great reader.

TIMOTHY CRIST: His house is full of books.

KING: Three thousand five hundred pounds, more or less. This is Timothy Crist, chairman of the Newark Public Library Trustees. He is really enthusiastic about Roth’s books.

CRIST: I know one in particular, he put a mark in the margin and said no. And I want to go back and watch this book because he disagreed with what this writer was saying.

KING: Do we know what book it is?

CRIST: I don’t remember.

KING: (Laughs).

CRIST: So it’s going to be fun to go through the collection again.

KING: Roth grew up in Newark and said the public library was like a second home to him as a kid. In college, he camped in the stacks and read between classes. Library trustees hope her gift will make the Newark Library a literary and scholarly destination.

CRIST: He has admirers all over the world. And you can see student seminars or reading groups, book discussion groups with 12 or 15 people around the table surrounded by his books.

KING: The plan is to take a slightly dark, slightly musty room that currently houses art and music reference books and make it Philip Roth’s personal library. They’ll paint the walls ugly yellow, scrape the popcorn ceilings, ditch the fluorescent lighting and go back to natural light from the nice tall windows. The library is trying to raise $4 million to do all of this.

The main branch is an enchanting building. It dates from the turn of the last century – four stories of brick, limestone and arched windows. It is inspired by an old Italian palace with an atrium and a marble staircase. But like many public libraries, it has been through tough times because over the years Newark has been through tough times.

CRIST: The population is about 60% of what it was at its peak. And following the global financial crisis of 2008, we had to tighten our belts.

KING: The library staff is about half of what it was before the financial crisis. Two branches were closed. And the truth is, many people who come to the library these days don’t come for its greatness or even for its books. They come for introductory computer courses, job search assistance, visits with a social worker on site.

Edwin Richardson was sprawled at a table in the library’s technology center. He was using a computer. He doesn’t have any at home.

Do you have a way to access the internet at home like a phone or something?

EDWIN RICHARDSON: I have a phone, but it’s not a smartphone. Let me say this (laughs).

KING: So I asked him, what do you think of Philip Roth?

RICHARDSON: I know who he is. I have read some of his books.

KING: What do you think?

RICHARDSON: About his books?

KING: Yeah.

RICHARDSON: Too many descriptions and sets and stuff. I don’t like to read a lot of landscapes and rain and gray building. Get to the heart of the story, sir.

KING: Edwin says he prefers Cervantes. Library administrators do not find this discouraging at all. They say the purpose of the library is that it is there for the public, the public at large. And to paraphrase Roth himself, you can’t force someone to love you. Noel King, NPR News.

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