For Philip Roth’s Birthday, a Lament About Cell Phones

By George Johnson | March 19, 2013 4:46 pm

As Philip Roth celebrates (we hope he is celebrating) his 80th birthday today, all of us avid fans are mourning his decision not to write any more books — and lamenting that the definitive biography of the writer will not appear for perhaps a decade. Ever since I read James Atlas’s wonderful biography of Saul Bellow, another of my favorites, I’ve been waiting to read the full story of Roth’s complicated life, the one he tantalizes us with in his self-referential fiction.

To mark the day I’d like to quote one of my favorite passages, from Roth’s Exit Ghost, which captures my own feelings about cell phones. In the novel Roth’s alter ego has returned, like Rip van Winkle, to New York City from his secluded mountain redoubt. He describes what it is like to be plunged suddenly into a new world.

What surprised me most my first few days walking around the city? The most obvious thing — the cell phones. We had no reception as yet on my mountain, and down in Athena, where they do have it, I’d rarely see people striding the streets talking uninhibitedly into their phones. I remember a New York where the only people walking up Broadway seemingly talking to themselves were crazy. What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly be so much to say — so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the drivers were on the phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy, too. To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitably have a dramatic effect. What will the consequence be?

I noticed, however, in his interview last fall with Charles McGrath, that Roth has purchased an iPhone.

“Every morning I study a chapter in ‘iPhone for Dummies,’ and now I’m proficient,” he said. “I haven’t read a word for two months. I pull this thing out and play with it.”

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About George Johnson

George Johnson writes about science for the New York Times, National Geographic Magazine, Slate, and other publications. His nine books include The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery (August 2013), The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, A Shortcut Through Time, and Fire in the Mind. He is a winner of the AAAS Science Journalism Award and has twice been a finalist for the Royal Society science book prize. Co-founder and director of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, he can be found on the Web at Twitter @byGeorgeJohnson.


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