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Is Author Philip Roth's Book Collection What Newark Public Library Needs?


The writer Philip Roth said recently that after he dies, his personal book collection will be donated to the public library in Newark, N.J. Book collections of famous authors often go to elite colleges and universities, so Roth's move came as a nice surprise to Newark. It's a city that's struggled with 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 big reader.

TIMOTHY CRIST: His house is full of books.

KING: Three-thousand-five-hundred books, give or take. That's Timothy Crist, president of the trustees at the Newark Public Library. He is really excited 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 look at that book because he disagreed with what that writer was saying.

KING: Do we know what book it is?

CRIST: I don't recall.

KING: (Laughter).

CRIST: So that's going to be the fun of looking through the collection again.

KING: Roth grew up in Newark and has said the public library was like a second home to him as a kid. In college, he'd camp out in the stacks and read in between classes. Library trustees are hoping that his gift will make the Newark library a literary and scholarly destination.

CRIST: He has admirers from around the world. And we can see seminars of students or book 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 turn it into the Philip Roth personal library. They're going to paint the ugly yellow walls, scrape off the popcorn ceilings, ditch the fluorescent lighting and go back to natural light from the beautiful high windows. The library is trying to raise $4 million to get all that done.

The main branch is an enchanting building. It dates to the turn of the last century - four stories of brick, limestone, arched windows. It's modeled on an old Italian palace with an atrium and a marble staircase. But like a lot of public libraries, it's gone through hard times because over the years, Newark has gone through some hard times.

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

KING: The library staff is about half of what it was before the financial crisis. Two branches were closed. And the truth is, a lot of people coming to the library these days aren't coming for its grandeur or even its books. They're coming for computer literacy classes, help finding a job, visits with an onsite social worker.

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

Do you have a way of getting on the internet at home like a phone or anything like that?

EDWIN RICHARDSON: I have a phone, but it's not a smartphone. Let me just say that (laughter).

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

RICHARDSON: I know who he is. I've read a couple of his books.

KING: What do you think?

RICHARDSON: About his books?

KING: Yeah.

RICHARDSON: Too much description and scenery and stuff. I don't like to read a whole lot of scenery and rain and the gray building. Just get to the point of the story, Sir.

KING: Edwin says he prefers Cervantes. The library trustees don't find this disheartening at all. They say the point of the library is that it's there for the public, the whole public. And to paraphrase Roth himself, you can't force someone to love you. Noel King, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.