Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Russia Literature on CD, DVD, or VHS

If you regret that you didn’t have a chance to take Russian history or literature in college, it may be time to turn to the Teaching Company at www.teach12.com. The Teaching Company offers customers a rare service: complete college lectures on video, DCD, or CD. They aren’t cheap unfortunately, and even lectures in CD format can cost more than $75 dollars. However, the Teaching Company really does offer some of the best courses in the country to its customers in convenient formats, and $100 dollars seems like a reasonable cost when you consider how much undergraduate students at Harvard, Princeton, and Northwestern are paying to hear the same lectures (without the benefits of the word-for-word recordings).

Thus far, there are only a few lecture series here that focus exclusively on Russia, although many of the general European history, literature, art, and philosophy series touch on Russia at various points. The first is a modern Russian history series done by Mark Steinberg at University of Illinois in Urbana, whose books dealing with the murder of Nicholas II, proletarian culture, and other matters are highly regarded. I’ve have not had the chance to hear these. The second is Classics of Russian Literature by Northwestern Professor Irvin Weil.

Weil’s lectures are relatively comprehensive, and take the reader from Old Slavonic church literature to contemporary Russian novels, with the emphasis being on Golden Age literature as well as revolutionary works. Weil conveys a sense of his subject’s continuing relevance and liveliness and often connects his literary discussions to conversations he has personally had with Soviet citizens during his time in the country. Weil also helps the reader to understand some of the links between biography and literature.

My own objection to Weil is that he spends far too much time merely summarizing or excitedly re-telling the stories of the novels he elects to discuss, weaving in biographical anecdotes whenever necessary. In the end, this approach is most useful for the listener or viewer who doesn’t intend to read the books and merely wants access to auditory cliff notes. In each case, the treatment—no matter how well told by the energetic if aged Weil—doesn’t do justice to the complexity and richness of the book r oeuvre itself. Weil would have been better served to have spent more time on comparisons, continuing themes in Russian literature, literary analysis, criticism, and discussions of genre. Even one larger theme in Russian history—say power, politics, gender, redemption, justice, class, violence, attitudes toward the West, or suffering—would have been more helpful to listeners who wanted to know something more about Russian literature as a whole.

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