Reading Anna Karenina

 A feAK_coverw weeks ago, I started re-reading Tolstoy’s classic, Anna Karenina.  I am reading the Pevear and Volokohonsky translation, the recipient of the PEN Translation Prize and an Oprah Book Club selection. I picked up my copy at the local library, where it was on sale for $3. For once, a paperback beats a Kindle edition for price (the Kindle edition is available for $10.72). At $3, this edition is a steal, as graceful and stately as a Russian ballet.

Speaking of the ballet: this being a used copy, I found inside it what looks like an old ticket to the Bolshoi Ballet, or at least a counterfoil, which the previous owner must have left inside the book. I use it as a bookmark. It looks like a currency bill. I was startled to find it there, a piece of paper that takes me right back to Russia in an instant, much like the book itself. In an odd way, quite the madeleine moment, although I have never been to Russia, much less to a performance by the Bolshoi.

In what I read last night, Anna returns home from a party at Princess Betsy’s late at night, where her odious husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, is awaiting her, to talk to her about her “behavior” that evening. Her “behavior” consisted of sequestering herself with Vronsky at the party, in full view of St. Petersburg paparazzi. To give her husband credit, at least he tries to talk to her about what had happened instead of boxing her ears in or throwing her out of the house or outright accusing her of infidelity.  Anna, of course, prevails, declaring that she is tired and that there is nothing to talk about, even though there most certainly is. One sees Alexei losing ground very rapidly in front of Anna’s calm demeanor and repeated declarations that she is “sleepy.”

 Of their relationship after this, Tolstoy writes: “Outwardly things were the same, but inwardly their relationship had changed completely. Alexei Alexandrovitch, such a strong man in affairs of state, here felt himself powerless. Like a bull, head lowered obediently, he waited for the axe that he felt was raised over him.” It is interesting that for all his facility with words, Alexei is never able to say what he needs to say to Anna. Her secretiveness and deceit in effect rob him of speech.


Reading Literature Increases Our Capacity for Empathy

I read in the NY Times’ health blog yesterday about an interesting study from psychology researchers at New York’s New School For Social Research demonstrating that reading literature can improve your empathy skills.  This was conducted as a scientific study, by giving each participant a few pages of a literary work to read, and then testing how they fared on “mood recognition” — identifying moods in pictures of people’s eyes. The researchers, a psychology professor and a graduate student from The New School, found that after reading literature for a few minutes, people performed better on the test.  The findings were published in the journal Science. 

What was interesting was seeing which books were classified as “literature” by the study. The literary selections included Anton Chekhov, Louise Erdrich, Wendell Berry, and Alice Munro, among others. The “non-literary” selections included Danielle Steele and Dashiell Hammett.

That science can be used to measure the effects of literary writing, even for a few minutes, is, to say the least, fascinating.

An idea for another study: measure the effects of reading literature via a hard copy of a book versus reading on Kindle. I wonder if the result will be the same.

There Was A Country, by Chinua Achebe

Last night, I started reading Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country. Thirty pages into the book, I am marveling at the simplicity of his writing, at how matter-of-factly he describes the conflicts between Christianity and the religion of his ancestors, his education, and British colonialism in West Africa. He presents the colonialists in a very positive light, as committed educators rather than as oppressors. The voice is a voice of experience and wisdom, that of an old man calmly reflecting on his life and on the history of his country.

The Death of Reading?

I am one of those people who daily mourns what I  call “the death of reading”. I know that this is a dramatic statement, perhaps even melodramatic. But as someone who has slowly drifted towards “web surfing,” I feel qualified to testify to the death of reading as we once knew it. Indeed, I am nothing more than a mute witness to the end of a once revered activity.  Unresistingly, I have allowed myself to be pulled by the tide, and now I must swim with the tide.

But let me rail against this fate. Let me rail against the end of long, silent summer afternoons interrupted by nothing other than the slow turning of pages as one moved steadily through an old classic; let me rail against the end of overstuffed armchairs, the soft light of a reading lamp, a steaming cup of Earl Grey, and a Somerset Maugham novel to get through; let me remember with nostalgia a time when sitting on green college lawns and reading W.B. Yeats was an experience of beauty and truth.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Internet. I appreciate it greatly.  It’s a great way to pass the time and a great source of information. I can read any poem I want any time I want thanks to the Internet. I can know when Paul Theroux’s new book is out and can read an excerpt from it without stirring out of my apartment. I can listen to authors speak about their works through podcasts that I download from the Internet. If anything, the Internet has brought distant worlds closer to me and has made them more accessible.

And there’s the rub. In bringing some things closer, it has pushed other things farther away. In making knowledge more accessible, it has also made it easier to get away with thinking, feeling, and doing less: When I know that I can command a poem by W.B. Yeats to appear on my screen at the click of a button, I have saved myself the trouble of experiencing that ache of longing, the ache to find a poem in a book, that specific poem in that specific book; I have spared myself the flustered, clumsy flipping of pages back and forth until – lo! — there it is again, with my undergraduate notations in the margins; there it is, after so long, like an old friend I haven’t seen in years but whom I have never forgotten.

To hold a book in one’s hands is to experience an author in a special way. It is to experience the labour that brought forth those pages. It is to hold a piece of another person’s life in your hands. It is to be faced with the incontrovertible truth that a person has, successfully or unsuccessfully, dedicated some years of his or her life to creating a body of work that could not have come into being without some suffering. It is to hold an ‘artifice of eternity’.

There is an eternity in which literature dwells, and there is this instantaneous instant of cyberspace. Have we traded one in for the other?


Haruki Murakami/What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I don’t think that reading two Japanese writers (neither of whom I had read earlier) in close succession can be called “bingeing” on Japanese writers, but that’s what I thought I was doing when I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Artist of the Floating World, Remains of the Day, and Never Let Me Go as well as Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running within the span of a couple of months. They are both immensely talented writers, but in different ways. Ishiguro is deeply interior, even dark at times, extremely focussed on the streams of consciousness of his characters; Murakami, based on the one work I have read, has a more playful, teasing, light-hearted and comic style.

What does he think about when he runs, or when he thinks about running? In his typical, teasing style, he says: Nothing. Nothing at all.

“I’m often asked what I think about when I run. Usually, the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.

On cold days I guess I think a little about how cold it is. And about the heat on hot days . . . And occasionally, hardly ever, really, I get an idea to use in a novel. But really as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning.

I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void” (16-17).

So what you get is about 180 pages  about this void in a spartan style that is a cross between Raymond Chandler — who inspired the title of this work — and Ernest Hemingway; Zen-like ruminations on the nothingness of everyday life through the lens of a writer and runner. It’s a book that’s as hard to describe as it is to put down.

It then struck me, the other day, that what this book is about is learning to cultivate a certain “stick-with-it-ness,” a dogged digging in of the heels in the face of faint-heartedness. The doggedness with which Murakami runs and his perseverance with running are the “glue” that keep him grounded and take him forward, past adversity and obstacles. It makes me believe that so much success in life derives from this simple lesson:  DO NOT GIVE UP.

Eat Pray Love . . . Then Marry

I am now more than halfway through Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Committed. I chanced upon it by accident while I was browsing at a bookstore last weekend. I have been a great fan of Eat Pray Love and have been looking around for something else to read by the same author.

Well, Committed pretty much “peels the onion” as far as marriage is concerned. Grandly renouncing the rose-tinted spectacles of romance, the author leaves no stone unturned in her quest to completely demythologize the world’s oldest and most revered institution — all in her own inimitable style. I must say that I envy her sense of humor and quick wit — both of which made Eat Pray Love such a resounding success.

The gist of Committed is that marriage is more often a curse than a blessing, especially for women. It’s something many women do because they feel that they have to. It’s a compulsion rather than a choice, a compulsion driven by thousands of years of rationalizations, injunctions, and decrees, as well as cultural stereotypes that leave no role for women other than as wives and mothers.  At the same time, there are, she acknowledges, good reasons to marry and to stay married:  children, companionship, stability, the experience of being a mother, the need for family — but these are not reasons that have ever appealed to her (and, dare I add, to me either).

On Exile

From Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender:

The exile feels that the state of exile has the structure of a dream. All at once, as in a dream, faces appear which he had forgotten, or perhaps had never met, places which he is undoubtedly seeing for the first time, but that he feels he knows from somewhere. The dream is a magnetic field which attracts images from the past, present and future. The exile suddenly sees in reality faces, events and images, drawn by the magnetic field of the dream; suddenly it seems as though his biography was written long before it was to be fulfilled, that his exile is therefore not the result of external circumstances nor his choice, but a jumble of coordinates which fate had long ago sketched out for him . . . (9).