“I am now convinced that reading Big Old Books . . . is a useful habit for all Christians, especially those who desire to understand our current culture”

"We in the West are not good at waiting for anything. We want our reaction and we want it now. And so, when we take up a B.O.B. [Big Old Book] which doesn’t move out of first gear until page 250, we protest this modern malady." - Ref21

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Bert Perry's picture

....and it appears that the author, like this commenter, likes the Russian novelists--though I am reminded of the old joke.  

How many Russian novelists does it take to change a light bulb?

One, but it takes him 400 pages to do it.

Also on the light side, I once took my copy of War and Peace to the dentist, who was of course early for my appointment that day.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

josh p's picture

War and Peace is well worth the effort but “In The First Circle” by Solzhenitsyn is the greatest novel Ever written. That is all.

Andrew K's picture

I am of Dostoevsky. Wink

Demons will give you the best insights for our current national turmoil. 

josh p's picture

Demons is indeed good but there is that one part that’s hard to read...

For those interested in reading "In the First Circle", make sure you get that title and not "The First Circle" which is the version that was censored by Russia so as to avoid anything disparaging towards the USSR. The uncensored version is the most amazing criticism of totalitarian collectivism I've ever read, and I've read a lot. 

 

Brothers Karamazov is also excellent. Tolstoy’s “A Day in the Life of...” is also great. Gulag is amazing but horrifying. I love Russian literature and history.

Don Johnson's picture

josh p wrote:

Tolstoy’s “A Day in the Life of...” is also great. Gulag is amazing but horrifying. I love Russian literature and history.

I think you mean Solzhenitsen...

But I concur, the Russians are great. There is an excellent Great Courses lecture on Russian Literature that is well worth the listen, by the way.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

M. Osborne's picture

I first read The Brothers Karamazov in the 9th grade, and it was my light bulb moment that good literature can express big ideas. And from there I went on to read a lot more of Dostoyevsky, including biographies about him. I need to revisit it as an adult. I'll probably get more out of it. I listened through an audiobook of The Brothers Karamazov again, but it was abridged and was not easy to follow.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

josh p's picture

Don Johnson wrote:

 

josh p wrote:

 

Tolstoy’s “A Day in the Life of...” is also great. Gulag is amazing but horrifying. I love Russian literature and history.

 

 

I think you mean Solzhenitsen...

But I concur, the Russians are great. There is an excellent Great Courses lecture on Russian Literature that is well worth the listen, by the way.

Oops! Thanks! I'll try the Great Course. I was just telling my wife that I would like to take a class on Russian literature. 

josh p's picture

M. Osborne wrote:

I first read The Brothers Karamazov in the 9th grade, and it was my light bulb moment that good literature can express big ideas. And from there I went on to read a lot more of Dostoyevsky, including biographies about him. I need to revisit it as an adult. I'll probably get more out of it. I listened through an audiobook of The Brothers Karamazov again, but it was abridged and was not easy to follow.

Yeah I really want to read a biography of Dostoyevsky. I understand he was a very interesting man with a lot of vices. 

John E.'s picture

Joseph Frank's 5 volume set is probably the best Dostoevsky biography you can read. Dostoevsky's The Diary of a Writer is also interesting.

For those interested, the book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky by George Steiner posits that "The choice between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky foreshadows what existentialists would call un engagement; it commits the imagination to one or the other of two radically opposed interpretations of man's fate, of the historical future, and of the mystery of God."

John E.'s picture

Also, my favorite part about the Ref 21 article is that the dude felt compelled to put a warning at the top that the article contains spoilers about War and Peace.   

Don Johnson's picture

Dostoevsky had an ability to get into the psychology of his characters. Crime and Punishment is chilling in that regard. The Gambler, a lesser known work, is said to be somewhat autobiographical. I think he really understood the gambling addiction. Later, if I recall correctly, he seemed to turn back to the Orthodox church for some kind of spiritual healing. Not sure if he was a believer in our evangelical sense of the word, but religion plays a big part in his stories.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Andrew K's picture

Frank's autobiography comes in a single-volume edition, which I own.

Yes, Demons had some extremely unpleasant moments. Especially if you read the originally planned ending. But like I said, it's the perfect book for our moment. The Idiot, however, is my personal favorite.

The Gambler was darkly comic, a feature of D's writing that should get more appreciation than it does.

Dostoevsky was an eccentric Russian Orthodox believer, and a slavophile. A socialist turned nationalist-conservative who had some issues throughout his life. But he was also the real deal. The guy never did anything halfway.

As I recall, he had his wife read his favorite passages of Scripture to him as he died.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Haven't read Dostoevsky. Maybe I will. Probably won't. I rarely read fiction, anymore. When I do, it's either John Sandford, Daniel Silva or Lee Child. Escapism is what I'm after with fiction. If I want seriousness, I read non-fiction.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

Quote:
So, read the Bible. No literature could ever take its place. Read great Christian books. We need to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters through the centuries. But also make time for great literature. Read Big Old Books and find your Christian life enriched.

I have found this so true as I've spent the last year and eight months reading through the Greek and Roman classics. Very enriching. Very satisfying. Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch will take some time to get through, but they are worth your time.

If you want to read English authors that take a long time to get somewhere, read Dickens (particularly Bleak House) or Melville (particularly Moby Dick).

Andrew K's picture

T Howard wrote:

 

If you want to read English authors that take a long time to get somewhere, read Dickens (particularly Bleak House) or Melville (particularly Moby Dick).

Samuel Richardson. :D 

M. Osborne's picture

I have read Bleak House. I enjoyed it. It was long. I've read a lot of Dostoyevsky, too.

But I have long suspected, without running down this hypothesis, that the economic pressures of serialization do not encourage concise and focused writing.

I also find the 19th-century British style to be terribly circumloquacious. I'm looking at you, Dickens and Austen. Don't get me wrong: I think Pride and Prejudice demonstrates outstanding human insight and is in many respects delightful to read. But I think I appreciate John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy more.

There, now I'm way out on a limb. Smile

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Andrew K's picture

M. Osborne wrote:

I have read Bleak House. I enjoyed it. It was long. I've read a lot of Dostoyevsky, too.

But I have long suspected, without running down this hypothesis, that the economic pressures of serialization do not encourage concise and focused writing.

I also find the 19th-century British style to be terribly circumloquacious. I'm looking at you, Dickens and Austen. Don't get me wrong: I think Pride and Prejudice demonstrates outstanding human insight and is in many respects delightful to read. But I think I appreciate John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy more.

There, now I'm way out on a limb. Smile


Try a classic Chinese novel. The meandering plots, subplots, and insane profusion of significant characters (many of whom promptly drop out of the story, never to reappear again) might awaken your appreciation for the tight focus of 19th-century British lit. ;) 

Bert Perry's picture

To be fairly serious, one thing that's struck me for a few years is that sometimes, fiction can be more "truthy" than non-fiction--with the obvious exception of sci-fi and fantasy--because it is crucial that the audience find that it is plausible.  So if you have a reasonably contemporary work of fiction, you at least have an idea of what people at the time thought was plausible.

I'm also a fan of English fiction, though sometimes the "criticality" of minor noblemen and noblewomen marrying an appropriately big annuity escapes me, and I've periodically enjoyed German fiction as well.  It is a wonderful way of getting a feel about how people think.  (even if they're making sure they marry a sufficient annuity)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

John E.'s picture

I love fiction and believe that it's an edifying activity that more Christians should engage in. Realizing, though, that not only my time but brain "power" is limited, I reserve reading fiction for my right-before-I-fall-asleep activity. At the moment, I'm reading the Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy by Sigrid Undset.

M. Osborne's picture

Fiction helps you enter into the circumstances and motivations of others in a richer and more empathetic way. Someone once paraphrased Flannery O'Conner, that when she was asked if she could reduce a story to a particular theme or proposition, she said that if she could have, she wouldn't have written the story. Perhaps I've tracked down the original quotation here.

I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully. (“Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners 96)

And not related to the above, @Bert: when I read Jane Austen, I have a hard time distinguishing the upper class of those days from the perpetually unemployed people of today. Both seem to drift around from activity to activity without any kind of meaningful work to do.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

TylerR's picture

Editor

I don't like or appreciate older literary fiction very much. I despise Dickens and find him ponderous. I read Lord Jim by Conrad, and thought it was quite good. I'd rather stab myself in the eye than read Austen or the Bronte sisters. I read Hawthorne years ago, and have pondered reading him again (very haunting). I read Irving and liked him. Hated Melville. Hated Cooper. Whitman was meh, but I don't like poetry. Frankenstein was depressing. Steinbeck is depressing. Fitzgerald is depressing; The Beautiful and the Damned was infuriating.

If I want to think, I'll read non-fiction. If I want to relax, I'll read escapist fiction.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?