Philip Roth does not look or act like a man who has just been canonized. He is still among us, and there is still a gleam in his eye. He still tosses off jokes with a rimshot quickness and gift for mimicry that would have guaranteed him -- had the writing career ever fizzled -- top billing as a stand-up act in Vegas. He used to have a great routine, for example, about why Jewish couples keep their sex manuals in the credenza.
Nevertheless, Roth, who grew up in the Weequahic section of Newark -- not exactly a cultural hotbed -- and who for a while in the 1960s was considered the wiseacre of American letters, has been admitted to this country's most exclusive literary club: The Library of America, that handsome series of uniform editions with dramatic black jackets, ribbon bookmarks and Bible-page-thin, acid-free paper. Even the typeface, crisp 10-point Galliard, confers on the volumes a kind of memorial dignity. This is an honor usually reserved for the long-dead, like Melville and Longfellow, and only two other living writers have been awarded membership: Eudora Welty in 1998 and Saul Bellow in 2003, when they were then 90 and 88, respectively, and had more or less stopped writing. Roth, now 72, is still reinventing himself.
The first two volumes are just out: Novels and Stories 1959 to 1962 (which includes Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories and Letting Go) and Novels 1967 to 1972 (When She Was Good, Portnoy's Complaint, Our Gang and The Breast). The plan calls for six more to be issued, one every year or so, for a total of eight, which will put him second in Library of America shelf space only to Henry James, who has 14.
The last volume is scheduled to appear on Roth's 80th birthday in March 2013, at which time Max Rudin, the publisher of The Library of America, has promised to give him a party. On learning of this arrangement, Roth said, he told Rudin, "Max, maybe we should have the party sooner."
The volumes have full-size jacket photos of a young and darkly handsome Philip Roth with burning, Tyrone Power-like eyes. The publishing plan also calls for the photos to be updated in subsequent volumes, so that Roth will gradually age right before his readers' eyes, until by Volume 8, presumably, he looks much the way he does today -- still handsome, but thinner on top, bushier of brow and senatorially gray at the temples. He could pass these days for the president of Metropolitan Life, where his father toiled for so many years without ever being offered a promotion.
Roth, who at various times in his life has been a reluctant celebrity -- when Claire Bloom published her memoir blaming him for the breakup of their marriage, for example -- these days leads a life of Tolstoyan quietness and privacy, devoted to reading and writing. He spends most of his time at an 18th-century Connecticut farmhouse he bought in 1972 -- so long ago, he says, that he now almost qualifies as an honorary Yankee. The place is so out of the way that you need GPS to find it, and it includes stone walls, towering ash trees and a triangular, tree-rimmed clearing that Roth, a lifelong baseball fan, jokes about turning into a ball field. There is a spare, wood-paneled studio in back where he writes every day, standing up mostly, at a tall computer table.
Canonization has not carried Roth away. "The initial delight is wonderful," he says. "But after a while, it's just another edition of a book." On the other hand, the occasion has apparently caused him to take stock. In midcareer -- in novels like The Counterlife and Operation Shylock and the several Zuckerman stories -- Roth specialized in spinning off multiple