The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, begins like many good tales, and plenty of bad ones, with an introduction. We don’t meet the brothers themselves, the three protagonists whose complicated relationships with their father provide most of the conflict, but instead the Karamazov patriarch. He is, to put it mildly, not the hero of this story.
In fact, the opening is one of the more amusingly derisive portraits in literature:
For the present I will only say that this “landowner”—for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate—was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless. But he was one of those senseless persons who are very well capable of looking after their worldly affairs, and, apparently, after nothing else. Fyodor Pavlovitch, for instance, began with next to nothing; his estate was of the smallest; he ran to dine at other men’s tables, and fastened on them as a toady, yet at his death it appeared that he had a hundred thousand roubles in hard cash. At the same time, he was all his life one of the most senseless, fantastical fellows in the whole district. I repeat, it was not stupidity—the majority of these fantastical fellows are shrewd and intelligent enough—but just senselessness, and a peculiar national form of it.
I first read these words when I was seventeen, half a lifetime ago. For AP English class each of us had to select an author, read three of his or her works, write one essay about each and then a behemoth literary analysis due in June. This would be, our teacher promised, an enormous but satisfying task. I was likely one of the few students who didn’t doubt her. Eager to impress her, I chose Dostoyevsky, gloomy Russian realist, and spent my final year of high school buried under the darkest, richest books I’ve read to date.
I thought I’d mastered Karamazov, especially as I encountered the brothers again in college, so it surprised me when, a few years ago, I reread the paragraph above and laughed aloud. I’d picked up the novel in the first place only to escape from the news I was reading, a depressing article about an angry leader who was haunting the White House, watching television early and eating cheeseburgers late, beginning and ending each day by denouncing his enemies on the Internet. Yet here, nearly 140 years earlier, our own president was preceded in fiction by a landowner of dubious wealth, married a few times, and possessed of a similarly “peculiar national form” of senselessness. Apparently it’s not just history that we’re doomed to repeat.
Toward the end of college, the topic of what we were doing next was a popular question in the English major set. Mostly, the question came out as “Where are you going to grad school?” Though we’d been assured by our parents, teachers and guidance counselors that a bachelors degree of any kind would be enough to secure us a strong spot in the middle class, even before the recession of 2008 we suspected that this wasn’t exactly accurate. So my classmates made plans to edit magazines, write ad copy, and study business and law. When I reminded them that I was now fully qualified to teach high school English, and that this is what I intended to do, the response was typically lukewarm, at best.
“Oh, you’re… teaching? Like, teaching literature? To kids?” they’d demand.
“Um, yes. Teaching.” (I wasn’t very confident in this choice. Hence the equally lukewarm response.)
“But they won’t get it. Do you really think that a teenager can actually understand most of what we read?”
It was a fair question, one I’ve had to ask myself often ever since. Can a teenager actually understand literature? Though of course I say they can, and do, understand literature quite well, there have also been times when I was tempted to say no and move on. Certainly, there are texts, and aspects of them, that a stretch for the average adolescent. The Brothers Karamazov was more of a struggle for me at seventeen than it was a few years later. And maybe more even then that it would be now. There may be a certain amount of life experience and education that gives a “grown up” an edge in reading.
But—I argue with them now, from the far side of a decade or so of teaching—you have to start somewhere. Reading lengthy classic literature is a skill, just like driving or badminton, one in which most people benefit from the input of a teacher and the encouraging community of a class. If you don’t read old books in school, you’re far less likely to read them ever.
So what? Do we lose anything if the next generation doesn’t recognize that song from a Harry Potter movie as lines from Macbeth, or can’t explain why To Kill A Mockingbird remains relevant to this generation? “What,” as Salman Rushdie’s young hero, Haroun, asks, “is the use of stories that aren’t even true?”
With my students, I used to talk a great deal about “practice empathy,” how in reading books we encounter situations and characters that don’t necessarily show up in our daily lives. Just in a few months of studying American literature, my students saw the deleterious effects of infidelity, the corrupting influence of wealth and power, and the extremes to which poverty and lack of opportunity can drive the human spirit. These were international students in Germany, still too young and a bit too isolated to know many of these experiences firsthand, but they were learning, little by little, how to pay attention to people different from them, how to listen and learn from the situations they’d experience later. This, to me, is one of the great values to reading, even and especially required reading, for young people.
But I’d also argue that this value doesn’t diminish when we’re older, that we continue to benefit from encountering in fiction that which reflects real life. As kids these people were strangers; to adults, they should look more familiar. A loan shark in Willa Cather’s My Antonia exploits and harasses immigrants in early 20th-century Nebraska. A lonely businessman in The Great Gatsby cons his way into the upper class, hiding his identity behind a wall of wealth and fabrications. A landlord in A Christmas Carol shrugs his shoulders at the plight of the poor, suggesting that prisons and poorhouses are sufficient solution for the homeless in his city.
When we meet these characters in fiction, we recognize them as villains, greedy, narcissistic and callous. They are antiheroes and antagonists, and by the rules of stories we expect to see them defeated or reformed. In real life, the fog of politics shrouds reality in fear and rhetoric, but what if we recognized some of these people, some of their speeches, some of this fear, from the pages of a book we’re reading? I’m convinced that if we read more books and read them more critically, we could avoid electing Dickensian villains to public office.
To do this, we have to read in the first place. Then we have to keep it up as adults, not because anyone is assigning us to, but because encountering good stories is also part of being informed, responsible citizens and members of the human race. We practice when we’re young, because it still matters when we’re older.
A friend of mine was recently reflecting that even as an adult, September feels a new beginning, a time to reassess habits and set goals. If the day after Labor Day sends a shiver of memory to your core, perhaps this is true for you, too. And perhaps, as you’re considering how to go “back to school” in your current life, as the clouds return and the days get a bit shorter, as a cup of tea or hot chocolate feels more appropriate, it’s time to read some good books. Visit the library, the bookstore, or that shelf of books you’ve loved before. Meet the Karamazovs, the March family, Richard III or Professor Dumbledore. Your life—and perhaps our world, too—will be better for it.