The Irresistible Lure of Russian Literature

Recently, a curious thing happened in the Library’s beloved Peak Picks collection (still very much available at a curbside location near you, by the way); we featured a not unscholarly explication 19th Century Russian literature. Admittedly, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, in which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading, and life is by the hugely popular, iconoclastic American author George Saunders. Still…

I couldn’t be more thrilled. My own love affair with Russian literature goes back over thirty years, when a bored teen somehow managed to draw inferences about his banal suburban angst from the inky depths of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. From that sub-basement up to the peaks of War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov, summited alone or read aloud with my wife, the great Russian authors have remained for me a source of awe, inspiration and rewarding perplexity. Clearly I’m not alone, to judge from the wealth of excellent books inspired by the varied and enigmatic genius of these writers.

My own favorite book on this topic – and probably the funniest – is The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, in which Elif Batuman depicts the colorful ranks of besotted Russophile readers with an antic drollery worthy of Gogol himself. A great follow up to this is Sarah Wheeler’s Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia With Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age, a vivid, lighthearted travelogue in quest of the Russian soul in its natural habitat, amidst the worst depredations of Russian life. Continue reading “The Irresistible Lure of Russian Literature”

Why are you reading that book?

After you read Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, he will lead you into questions like this. A bestselling author in France, Bayard claims he doesn’t care much for reading. One of his main points is that one can have an intellectual conversation about literary classics, such as Macbeth and Crime and Punishment, without ever reading the book at all. In fact, he finds it completely unnecessary to read any book in its entirety. Not only is there not enough time to read the never-ending list of unread books, but the process of reading is also a process of erasure. Bayard makes this argument through Robert Musil’s librarian, who is obsessed with books and overwhelmed by the infinite library he will never live long enough to get through:

'Robert Musil's librarian
Robert Musil

 “Every time we read a book, we begin the process of forgetting it details of plot or character vanish, even the book’s general   outlines blur, sometimes we forget having read it at all. Conversely, it is not necessary to have read a book in its entirety, or even at all, to know a great deal about it. It’s more important to know about a book’s role in our collective library than its details.” (Think Jane Austen and her reemergence of popularity today).

So, don’t feel obligated to finish a book you started, guilty you didn’t read the book club pick, or socially accountable to catch up on classics you forgot, or never read. Read for the simple pleasure of reading. Whether that is to relax, satisfy your curiosity, escape pressures of daily life, educate yourself, or gain a different perspective. When books have made a deep impression on us, Bayard says, “We are the sum of these accumulated books”.

If you love reading and are interested in the reader’s  role then you will enjoy Bayard’s paradoxical, witty and thought-provoking views.

Here is a list of books I took home from the library and intend on reading entirely:

  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield: An amateur biographer interviews a famous fiction author to get the truth out of her.
  • The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel: A young girl from an advanced race tries to fit in with the clan bound to tradition.
  • The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa: A housekeeper and her son build an unlikely friendship with a mathematician whose memory lasts only 80 minutes and is obsessed with prime numbers.  

Here is a list of books I never finished reading, but appreciate as a story:

  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare: I agree that it’s a good tragic love story, but I struggled to read the Old English.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: When all the hype about Jane Austen surfaced I decided to give it a try, but with my limited vocabulary I couldn’t enjoy it (I think I’ll watch the movie). 
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: I really enjoyed two of this author’s books that we were required to read for high school, but this book was way too long for me to finish. (However, I did like the play and there was a really cool rain scene reenacted on the stage).     ~ Renee, Northgate Branch