Tuesday, July 07, 2015

My Summer Book

I’ve been seeing lots of lists of summer reads lately, and that reminded me of Goodbye, Columbus, a book I associate with summer, because I read it during summer school.

My parents were very opposed to my sitting around all summer long doing nothing. Since we had a big yard and a twenty-acre lake behind our house, they weren’t interested in sending me to summer camp. So instead I went to various summer programs offered by our school district. 

The summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school that meant taking the bus to Pennsbury High for a summer course in literature. 

I remember meeting in Room 222 – this was during the years when that TV show, starring Michael Constantine and Karen Valentine – was on TV. I can’t recall what else we read, but the book that stuck with me is Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

I was a voracious reader, but this was one of the first books I read that was about somebody like me – Jewish, teenaged, growing up in the suburbs.  It was his first book, published when he was 26, and included the title novella and five stories.
Wikipedia states that “Each story deals with the concerns of second and third-generation assimilated American Jews as they leave the ethnic ghettos of their parents and grandparents and go on to college, to white-collar professions, and to life in the suburbs.” 

Well, that was me right there – a second-generation American Jew. My father even grew up in the same “ethnic ghetto” as Roth himself – the Weequahic Park neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey.

I went on to read more Roth, particularly Portnoy’s Complaint, which informed my senior thesis, a book about Jewish assimilation, among other things. I also got to take a course at the University of Pennsylvania with Roth himself. 

It wasn’t a creative writing course, sadly; instead, we read a bunch of novels, including several by Colette, and then wrote essays about them, which he critiqued heavily. I don’t think we ever discussed his work in class – he just assumed, I guess, that if we’d signed up for a course with him we knew what he’d written.

He was also kind of a prick, a lot like the characters he wrote about, so maybe he just didn’t care what we thought.