The Daily Heller: Designing the Philip Roth Library Room

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This has been a tumultuous year in the death of Philip Roth. A biography of the late novelist (1933–2018) was dropped by its original publisher after sexual abuse claims arose against its author, Blake Bailey. Originally released in April by WW Norton, Bailey’s book had been much-heralded, and was subsequently picked up by Skyhorse. While Roth said when he was alive that he did not look forward to a biography, he appointed Bailey to the role.

To help burnish Roth's image, a 2013 documentary, Philip Roth Unmasked, has been streaming on Amazon Prime. Adding to the Roth legend, C&G partner Jonathan Alger headed the team that designed the currently open Philip Roth Personal Library at the Newark Public Library, created to capture the novelist’s lifelong engagement with reading, writing and Newark. Donated to the Library after his death, Roth’s collection consists of approximately 7,000 volumes used by the author to inform his own groundbreaking fiction. Being a huge fan of Roth's incredible output, I could not resist learning more from Alger about this library within the library.

Philip Roth is one of my favorite authors and a true “son of Newark.” How did this idea for a Roth Room come to light?

Roth himself approached the Library and proposed bequeathing his personal library to them. He spent time as a child studying in that Library and wrote about the city as well, so he wanted something of his legacy to be brought back home. There were various potential spaces where that collection could have lived, but one in particular was especially suitable, right off the main atrium with its Tiffany skylight, and next door to Centennial Hall, their largest gathering space. Before it was the Roth space, that room was art book stacks and needed some love. After he passed, the clock started ticking, because the terms of his gift were that the collection had to be given a home at the NPL for the public within three years (the last of which ended up being COVID, which was … interesting).

By the way, the Phillip Roth Personal Library is not a collection of books Roth wrote, it is a collection of books he himself owned, and used for research for all his famous books.

What level of research did you have to do in order to recreate or approximate his library?

We had the good fortune of going to Roth's home after his passing, with a group of representatives from the library and our architectural collaborators. We were able to freely roam all around his compound in Connecticut that day, in his house and his writing studio, all of which were packed to overflowing with this collection of books that he consulted throughout his life. Some of the books were laid out and stored in ways that seemed clear right away, and one of the rooms of his house was actually a library with a reinforced floor. But in all the other rooms—living room, summer porch, writing studio, bedrooms, den, you name it …

So we left those groupings as-is, in the giant glass shelves in the space. Future Roth scholars can examine these groupings and see if they can figure out which of Roth's books a particular group inspired. It's the only library we know of that isn't organized by the Dewey Decimal System, but rather almost archaeologically.

The library space that we created, inside the room that Ann Beha Architects renovated, isn't meant to be a recreation of Roth's home or any of those rooms. But when you stand inside that space, surrounded by his personal books, still organized the way he left them, many with hidden notes of his written into them, we feel that you are inside his mind, in a way.

Aside from the artifacts of Roth’s life, what is included in the exhibit?

The biggest presence by far—which is suitable for a public library, after all—is the thousands of books in the collection that are displayed on shelves as a singular gigantic artifact that you walk into. But more than half of the space is dedicated to a gallery where thematic exhibits can be installed. The inaugural show is about Roth overall, and touches on Roth as a writer, as a reader, his relationship to Newark, his famous love of baseball, his relationships with other writers, and many more subjects. Those exhibits certainly include books as well, but they also have medals (major ones), images of Roth with people like Obama, baseball hats and scraps of paper he wrote notes on.

Did you have to design in a special way to retain the identity of the Newark Library and the Roth “brand”?

This project of the NPL carries its own brand, which is based on a little bit of book jacket design historical research. In the peak Roth years of the last quarter of the 20th century, his Norton books in hardcover and paperback often were designed in bold colors, with complementary large type in a special, curvy, very "'70s" typeface. You'll know it right away when you see it. So we picked up that legacy and ran with it, in all matters large and small. If you are a Roth fan, you'll recognize the vibe of the place immediately.

What is your favorite part of this special room?

I should answer "all the things we designed." But I won't. Because Roth also left several pieces of furniture to the Library, including several long tables, an Eames chair and ottoman, and a standing writing desk. But these weren't just any pieces of his. That writing desk is what he wrote on (he had a bad back and had to write longhand, standing). And that Eames chair is what he sat in to read (he took his reading seriously, almost athletically). He wanted visitors to actually use them, not to preserve them, which is rare. So when you stand in front of that desk, or sit in that chair, you can imagine Roth's ghost standing, or sitting, with you. Most people won't think twice about that, but people affected by Roth's writing will be.

Photos courtesy C&G Partners