The Book That Made Me A Reader
Sam Lipstye on Henry Roth's Call it Sleep
Many books made me a reader. But one book that stands out from my younger years is Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, which I believe we read in 10th grade in my public high school in New Jersey. A wonderful teacher named Mr. D’Ambra guided us through this wrenching, aesthetically ambitious novel first published in 1934. It’s an immigrant story, and a brutal one. The main character is a Jewish slum child contending with a violent father and a cruel, deceiving world. Mixing Dreiser-like melodrama with streaks of Joycean technique, the book knocked me back when I read it, most of all for its intensity. I had no inkling of the Roth saga at the time, how the book was soon forgotten until rediscovered thirty years later and canonized, how Roth himself withdrew from the literary world and tried for fifty years to write another book. (He eventually did.) This novel did not make me want to be a writer, as many other books have done. It made me want to read more books that engaged the heart and mind with such ferocity. It can be a very bleak work, and Roth helped me understand that the best writers don’t flinch from that part of life. Roth showed me how certain books can be exquisitely felt, gorgeous and painful worlds, and not just illustrations of them.
Sam Lipsyte was born in 1968. He is the author of the story collection Venus Drive (named one of the top twenty-five books of its year by the Voice Literary Supplement) and three novels: The Ask, The Subject Steve and Home Land, which was a New York Times Notable Book and received the first annual Believer Book Award. He is also the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. He lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University. His new short story collection is The Fun Parts.