Michael Roth ’78 is both University President and University Professor. A philosopher and intellectual historian, Roth teaches “The Modern and the Post-Modern” and “Philosophy in the Movies: The Past on Film” and is the author of six books, most recently “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.” Roth sat down with the Argus to talk about reading on planes, reviewing books, and being a hipster Freudian.
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelves?
Michael Roth: This week in class we’re doing some fiction… and [reading] a great nonfiction book. We’re reading Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” which is great, and some stories of Jennifer Egan, which are part of the novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” So that’s for class, but I’ve been doing a lot of book reviewing, as I often do. I did Kevin Carey’s “The End of College,” and then I reviewed Fareed Zakaria’s “In Defense of a Liberal Education.” And then I reviewed Matthew Crawford, who’s an interesting writer who wrote a book a few years ago called “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” and he basically argues that the education most of us has is so abstract; you’re taken away from your body and not using your body as part of learning. He’s a political philosopher, but he’s also a motorcycle mechanic, and so this book is about how so much of our culture is meant to distract us from our bodily awareness. We go from our phones to our iPads, [and] you go to an airport and there’s music, and you’re never allowed to actually take your own measure of the world outside your head. And he has this [other] book called “The World Beyond Your Head.” So I wrote about Matthew Crawford…. I was vaguely aware of his earlier work when I was able to read through the new book, which is [about] everything from neuroscience to political philosophy, and wrote about that for the Chronicle for Higher Education. I wrote something about Frank Bruni’s new book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.”
And then for fun I read Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See.” It just won a Pulitzer Prize yesterday! And I read it on planes, because I spend a lot of time on planes, and I really enjoyed it a lot. It’s a story set in France in World War Two. And then I read a book by a Wes parent from Iceland. His name is Olaf Olafsson, and I met with him a couple of times, and he’s a very interesting person [who works] at Time Warner, but he writes novels in the morning. I’m so jealous, frankly. I’ve been sick, so I’ve had a lot of time at home, so I downloaded his novel called “Restoration,” which I very much enjoy [and have] found very interesting.
And then a book for fun is Simon Rich’s comedy book, called “Spoiled Brats”—hilarious. And a book for work: Michael Crow’s “Designing the New American University,” which is not particularly well written but [is] interesting because so many of us judge schools by how many [applicants] we reject, but what would happen if we judged our worth by how many people you educate? It’s a real challenge, and I think it’s important.
A: What’s your process of reviewing a book? Are you a tough critic?
MR: My process is that I try to find things that I’d be interested in thinking about. I enjoy the discipline of, in short reviews of 800 words, saying something in a concise way. It forces me to think clearly…. I don’t like writing negative reviews. When I first started doing this, years ago, I said that to a magazine that I was going to write for, and they gave me a book in my field—intellectual history—and I thought it was really awful, evil, and terrible, so I wrote an incredibly harsh review. So I sent it to them, and they said, “This is really strong, but do you think this is a positive review?”
I only want to [write a negative review] if the book is important. I don’t want to write a nasty review for a book that doesn’t matter so much. I guess I don’t look for soft spots. I ask, “What can I learn from this book?” If I think the book is evil, I’ll say that. Even Kevin Carey’s book, with which I disagree very strongly, I want to say, “There are things you can get from this book; don’t just dismiss it.” So my process is that I read it, I take notes, I copy all my notes down on a piece of paper, and then I try to get 800 words out of it.
A: How have you reacted to reviews of your own books?
MR: Well, I’ve hired some people to—no. For this last book, they’ve been very positive. The Washington Post was very kind and made it a notable book of the year. The library magazine and others have been very generous. I’ve been grateful for my positive reviews. For the last academic book, there weren’t that many reviews, but they were very positive. I have gotten, especially when I was younger, mixed reviews… and it’s disturbing. You put a lot into a book, and in the academic world you don’t have that many readers, so one review seems like half your readers sometimes. But that’s okay. I think I’ve learned a lot from them.
A: What books did you enjoy reading when you were a child and teenager?
MR: As a child, I read all the “Hardy Boys” books. And I read all these books about dogs. There was “Lad: A Dog,” and “Lad: the this,” and “Lad: the that.” I was hit by a car in fourth grade, and I was bleeding in the ambulance, and all I could think of were the dogfights, which always ended with somebody getting hit in the jugular. And I said to my parents, “Did they get my jugular?” So I was really into those.
But I wanted to be an athlete, and most of my friends in Massapequa Park were athletes, and they went on to be athletes in high school. And I kept getting hurt. I got hurt in the knee, the back… it seemed that I could get hurt picking up a book. And so I really fell off the track that my friends were on…. I became really bookish because I had a cast on my knee or something and couldn’t do the things I was used to, and I realized that I just loved books—living in the world of books.
I began to read rather pretentious books. I was reading “Ulysses” when I was 12 or 13, not out of enjoyment, but because I felt I should. I don’t know where I got the notion—my parents didn’t go to college, and we didn’t have many books at home—but I found the most difficult books that you won’t like. I started carrying these books around in high school, and I got really interested in the French authors, like Camus and Sartre, and just devoured them.
I was a lifeguard, which gives you plenty of time to read in the summer, and when I was bar mitzvahed my uncle brought me to the Eighth Street Bookshop and bought me all this Freud. I was reading Freud in the sun. I don’t know whether it was because it was Freud or just sitting around in a bathing suit reading—it’s like everything you read feels good—but I was reading these dense books of Sigmund Freud in high school. I became a Freudian. It was a hipster thing: nobody else was a Freudian, so I was going to be a Freudian. And when I got to take psychology courses in college, everyone was anti-Freud. They didn’t know anything about Freud, but I did know a little bit. And so it was exciting, like knowing a rock ’n’ roll band that nobody knew. Freud was my rock ’n’ roll band.
This interview has been edited for length.
The online version of this article was updated on May 4 to correct the following error: the first version misquoted Roth as having strongly agreed with Kevin Carey’s book, when he in fact strongly disagreed.