Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Problem with Russian Literature

I love to read.  I am reading something everyday.  Books, magazines, newspapers, comics, Internet anything: I have read it.  I even read the video game booklet before playing the game.  It drives my kids nuts.  I just love to read.  I am usually reading about 3 books at one time.  I keep one to read at work, I have one by my bed, and I have one in the car.  So, needless to say, I consider myself a fairly well-read person.

That opinion came to an end a few months ago.  I was perusing the library again for my newest literary conquest and found an interesting book, "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die"  by Peter Boxall.

Being the bibliophile that I am, I was immediately interested.  I thumbed through it in the library to see what classics I may have missed.  To my surprise, there were quite a few books I had never read.  So, I checked out the book for further investigation.  For the next four days, anytime I was in front of the television, I was typing the books into my laptop (not knowing the list is already on the Internet here and dozens of other places).  I had decided that if these were the best books ever written, according to the critics that contributed to the book, then I wanted to read them all.  Once I got them all typed in, I soaked my fingers for a few hours, then I began to eliminate the ones I had already read, so I could make the list smaller.  When I was done the list was down to 952.


How could that be? I have read approximately two books per week since I learned how to read. This is impossible. I began to go through a mental checklist of the books I have been reading, and I realized that for the last several years, I have not been reading books that would ever be considered classics of literature. I have read hundreds of political commentaries, books on law and psychology, Christian social commentaries, and the works of Stephen King. I realized that although I had read a huge number of books, I typically just read whatever sounded good to me at the time. I am not saying that was a bad thing. That is probably how most people choose their next book to read. Well, no more. I decided to expand my reading repertoire.

I changed my attitude. Instead of being disgusted at how few of the classics I had read, I became excited about the huge list of books I now had in my future. So I dove in. One of the first ones I read was "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath. I read it one day at work and finished it that night. I wasn't sure what to think of it. It is an autobiographical piece from Plath. She has what many would call a wonderful life and isn't even twenty yet. She is an aspiring writer, has been given a scholarship to intern at a magazine in New York, is going to all the fancy places paid for by the magazine and just isn't happy. She is disconnected from life, tries to kill herself and ends up in an institution. Apparently, Plath is heralded as being one of the great American woman writers and is inspiring to many young women. I don't get it. She did write well, but where was the inspiring part. She constantly talked about suicide and eventually did it in real life. Not my sort of book, but I got to mark it off the list.

I read "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandré Dumas. Excellent book. I was already familiar with the story, but had never read it. I look forward to "The Three Musketeers" by him also. Next was "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut which is basically about a WWII soldier who survives being a POW, starts a successful business after the war, and starts a family. Then, the aliens come and abduct him to the planet Tralfamadore, where he is thrown in a zoo-type structure to be gawked at by the residents there. He is forced to breed with another Earthling, who happens to be a big movie star in Hollywood. After that, it gets kind of strange.

So, I was getting books marked off of my list, but I was not looking forward to all of them. I noticed there were several books by Fyodor Dostoevsky, an 19th century Russian author who wrote most of his books while imprisoned in Siberia. A few years ago I read his book "Crime and Punishment." It was not an enjoyable experience. In a nutshell, the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to rob and murder an old woman. He does so, also killing her half-sister. Then spends the next 800 pages feeling guilty. I hated that book and even had trouble keeping track of the different characters. In Russia, your name changes depending on who is speaking to you. To give you an idea how complicated this can get, I found a webpage (click here) that explains it. Here, my name is Brett to everyone. Occasionally, I am called Mr. Minor. That's about as complicated as it gets. Not in Russia. Check the link for a moment to get an idea of what I am talking about.

When reading a book with several characters, it is important for the reader to keep the different characters straight in order to avoid confusion.  Being raised in the U.S., I am accustomed to names like William, Robert and Susan.  Dostoevsky has characters named Parfen Rogozhin, Dmitri Prokofitch Razumihin, Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, and Pavel Fyodorovitch Smerdyakov. When not being accustomed to these types of names and there are three dozen characters with such names, it gets difficult to keep track of who did what. Add to that the fact that everyone's name changes according to who is speaking to them, it gets even worse. A man is not addressed by an acquaintance with the same name his mother would use for him. It is even a different name for a business associate. Even the middle and last names change determined by whether the name is being used for a legal purpose or casually.

Therefore, I suffered though the book, not know what was going on half of the time. Add to that the fact that every character is so long-winded with everything they have to say. A character could go on for four pages just asking for a cup of tea. But now, I have to read five more Dostoevsky novels to complete my list. So, I decided to get them out of the way.

I have now read "Notes from the Underground", "The Brothers Karamazov", and am half-way through "The Idiot."  I have to admit, they have gotten better.  I had to get used to his writing, but I am coming to appreciate it.  Most of the characters seem to be insane, much like the author, but they are fun to watch.

I still have over 900 books left on my list and I have discovered there are groups of people who have decided to try to read all these books as well.  They have even started book discussion groups online.  So, I know I am not crazy for trying this.  Party at my house when I have finished the last one.


  1. I can appreciate your mission and I applaud you for it. I love to read also. I choose my reading by the authors. If I find one I like, I try to read every book they wrote. My favorite book "Diary of Ann Frank" I have read many times..

  2. I have never read that one. My daughter has and she likes it.

  3. Try Anna Karenina. Easier Russian Lit. DON'T bother with Doctor Zhivago. I love the movie, so read the book.

    It. Was. Sheer. Torture.

    (no need to reply, I probably won't get back here to see it.)

    1. Anna Kerenina is on my list. I will eventually get to it. I don't remember if Dr Zhivago is there.

      And I have to reply. I dedicated my self to replying to every comment. Although, it is getting harder, now that I have more.


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