Sunday, February 17, 2013

How I read and why

I take my reading very seriously; I arrange it by seasons. 

Spring is a great time for French writers like Choderlos and Balzac (but not George Sand, she's dead to me. I'll explain another time) and 19th century English writers like the Brontes

Summer is all about the Southern writers and others who live in a humid climate, like Rushdie, O'Conner,Garcia Marquez and Faulkner. 

In the fall I try to go to big American writers like Vonnegut, Ford, Hemingway - although a lot of his stuff takes place in Spain so it works for summer too- Fitzgerald, you know, Americana. 

Winter is the right time. "The right time for what?" you ask. It's the right time for Russians! Chekov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, it's all good. I have found that short stories and poetry are seasonless, they're like a cardigan sweater that way.

Being that it is winter I am attempting (for the fourth winter in a row) to finish The Brothers Karamazov. Don't get me wrong, it's good. No, it's great in the way Russian Lit ought to be great. It is dense with ethical questions like, "To whom do we owe our loyalty, what does it mean to be wise and what, exactly, is love? Can we love on a global level but hate on a very specific level?" Good stuff, right? So why has it taken me four winters to get through and still no end in sight? I don't have a good answer for that. I'd like to say something amazing like, "It has to be savored," but that would be a lie and as someone who has reread the first two hundred pages of "The Brothers Karamazov" FOUR(!) times I can tell you that one of the main themes (I think) is not to believe the lies you tell yourself. 

The truth is, that as I get older I find those ethical questions that I found so fascinating in the abstract, downright annoying in the practical. I think that if you are over the age of thirty you have wondered what love really is. Is it the 'only wanting the best for the other,' or is it the passionate self-destructing flame-out love that that is such a trope (and perhaps for good reason). Can one exist at the same time with the other? As for where our loyalty should lie, is it with the people who created something, or with the thing itself? Example: You get a job, with it comes a mentor. The mentor is fired, do you quit your job?

See? Most everyone has had either these thoughts or these experiences in their lives. Why is it we need to read about some miserable family, in miserable Russia not having the answers either? 

The only reason I can think of is that we don't read fiction for answers. We go to science or math for that. We read fiction (or at least I read fiction) for meaning. Meaning isn't the same as answers. It isn't as cut and dry as that. Meaning changes from one situation or one group of people to the next. It's 5=3 and it is no less right than 5=5. 

So I will trudge back to Russia where Dimitri and Alex and the Elder Zossima have been waiting for me patiently since last winter, snow filling up their boots. I will listen quietly in the background while Dimitri rages about what he is owed and Alex tries to love his family and hope, just hope, that some of the meaning of their story will lend meaning to my own. 

1 comment:

Julia R said...

Omg, I CANNOT finish that book either. I even have a gorgeous antique edition that is a pleasure to hold and to smell (and readers all know that unfortunately, these things do make a difference), and I couldn't do it. I gave it a 346-page try, and failed. Maybe a different translation would go more smoothly?