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The Year of Russian Literature: Huzzah!

I admit, when I began 2021, I did not anticipate turning my reading into anything thematic. While I’ll save the discussion of how I pick books and authors for a future post, I’d like to focus on tendencies I’ve noticed in this year of reading.

Me, with my last book of the year

First, unlike most years, I’ve doubled up on several authors in a short period of time. Usually, as with Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Roth, I wait a year or two until I return to them. This year, however, I’ve read two books each by Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Tolstoy. While this choice limited the number of authors I’ve introduced myself to, it also allowed me to parse out their writing styles more clearly.

It seems that no matter how well-read one is, there is always some classic that’s been missed. (This also seems to be the case with all media, whether music, or movies, or art. These wells are inexhaustible.) I knew, upon choosing The Brothers Karamazov, that I had never read a single Russian novel in my life. After being cajoled into reading War and Peace this summer by a buddy, I decided that I might as well turn this into my year focusing on Russian literature.

It was from that decision that I doubled up on authors. (While Kafka is German, his works fit thematically with the Nabokov and Dostoyevsky that I read. I have also never read anything by him before, either.)

One of the consequences of this choice also meant that I was delving into the world of translations more than I ever had before. Despite reading Don Quixote and assigned specific translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey, I rarely considered the importance of the translator when purchasing the book. Indeed, only after I got myself a Barnes & Noble version of The Iliad, did I discover it was not even in verse, as I expected it to be. Sometimes I made conscious choices, while other times I picked the translation that was most accessible. Perhaps, if I read these Russian books again, I’ll try a different translation and see the full effect that choice can have on the reading experience. I also think it’d be a fresh way to revisit something.

Furthermore, it also increased my interest in Russia in general. While I absolutely love travel, Russia had never struck my interest in the same way most other countries did. I would have prioritized a hundred trips over one that involved Russia. Now, however, I feel more of a connection, and it is not just because I’m a big fan of Hulu’s The Great. I want to discover more of its history and culture. I would not be surprised if, doing the same with other countries’ classics, I’d feel similarly, and it encourages me to cast my net wider and deeper.

Had I decided on a theme at the beginning of the year, I’m sure I could have gotten more in. There are still, and will always be, glaring omissions that any “real fan of Russian literature” would be appalled to see missed. Overall, though, I’ve been happy with this decision. I’ve enjoyed the project-like focus of a country’s literature. Perhaps next year, I’ll do something similar…

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