Every year, as an exercise in discipline and self-improvement and to gain some of the liberal arts education I lacked as an MIT tool, I read a great book. Not something defined as great by the whims of popular culture, but made great by standing the test of time. My selection has to be long, it has to be dense, and it has to be uniformly considered a classic. No pain, no gain. I usually coax a few others to join the effort in order to increase the chance of success.
I do not always succeed; four hundred pages of Don Quixote’s adventures were quite enough. I have been known to relax what constitutes reading; I resorted to an audio version of Moby Dick to plough through those endless analytics of the whale. Still, I usually enjoy the books; I would not have discovered the 1300 page beauty of Les Miserables without this rigor, and I always feel satisfied, if no smarter, when I am finished.
This year I am tackling The Brothers Karamazov, along with two voracious reader friends of mine. Our goal is to discuss it all by mid-March. I am only a hundred pages in and like the Russian winter, it is a long slog. So far I like the action, when there is any; the descriptions are fine, and I can glaze over the crazy long names without ever really articulating them. The tough parts are the speeches, but of course the speeches are the whole point of Russian novels. Each character represents some larger truth, and the truths do battle through their words.
The other night, only at page 60, I was wondering how I could possibly endure the entire book, when in the middle of the chapter ‘A Lady of Little Faith’ Dostoevsky, through the voice of Father Zossima, introduces the concept of ‘active love’, a love expressed through our actions towards others as opposed to our interactions with them. As a person who discovered early in life that I far prefer to work on behalf of people than with them, this idea resonated. My attention perked further as the wise Father Zossima launched into a parable of the doctor who admits, ”The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular”. The doctor draws a humorous line that correlates how much time he spends with an individual, with how much he comes to detest him.
I don’t recall ever seeing in print a perspective that so closely matches my own. I love mankind much more then any specific man. I have wonderful friends whom I think of as ‘two hour’ people; folks I like to have dinner with on a regular basis. We catch up, we socialize, but I never think of spending an entire day with them. Go away on a vacation with someone? A recipe for certain torture as our middle aged neuroses bang against each other with increasing velocity. I travel through life alone, loving mankind through a filter, whether it be movement (on a bicycle trip) or language and culture (in Haiti). I am fascinated by human beings, our similarities, our differences and our idiosyncrasies, but I am not too inclined to want to know any single person too well.
Needless to say it feels anti-social, even a bit creepy in a world that heralds the virtue of having a mate, to admit no interest in bonding with another individual. That is probably why, though I can trace the seeds these sentiments to childhood, I have never actually announced them before, and certainly never written them down.
Now that Dostoevsky has spoken so directly to me, I am paying closer attention. I will get to know the brothers Karamazov well, through the comfortable filter of the printed page. Great books are great because of how they capture the universal experience of man. We read them seeking insight into our nature. Yet what we really seek in every word, is to find ourselves, our own reflection, among the vast universe spun by these incredible stories.