Monday, March 29, 2010

My Most Influential

I feel like we should contribute to this slightly irritating thing going around the blogosphere where you list and describe the 10 books that have had the biggest influence on you (not necessarily best or favorite books). So here are my biggest Russian influences:

1.Hendrik Smith, The Russians. I attended a small rural high school and one of our few electives was a freshman “Russian History” course. This was the textbook. I haven't looked at it since I was 14, but my impression was that it was designed to scare students and mold capitalists. It depicted Russian life as unbearably narrow, drab, and oppressive. When I later (briefly) grew more responsive to the principles of socialism I assumed that Smith, a New York Times reporter, was just a shil for the anticommunist establishment. Now I imagine he got things about right, and he may have been more sympathetic to the Russians than I remember.
2.Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment. I was a lazy student and one quarter I forgot to do my junior year English book review. Half mockingly a friend and I suggested to the teacher that perhaps reading Crime and Punishment and War and Peace for next term would make up for our negligence. We didn't know anything about these books or their authors, but we read them. I'm not sure what I responded to. I felt pity for Sonia; I was upset by the beating of the horse; my flesh crawled at the thought of Raskolnikov's room. I don't think the murder, or the philosophical reflections, or the arrest and imprisonment of Raskolnikov made much of an impression. I didn't even know who Napoleon was. But this was the first non-juvenile important book I read of my own free will and I still remember how it felt to think that I had put away childish things, as they say.
3. Saltykov-Schedrin, The Golovlyov Family. I read this as a sophomore in college for a Russian Literature course. The class was taught by a grad student and didn't leave many lasting memories. But this book struck me for some of the same reasons Crime and Punishment did. The singular ability of the Russians to wallow in both crapulence and filth, to seek and celebrate the lowest, most degrading forms of existence, and furthermore to find redemption in that degradation reaches its apex in The Golovlyov Family. In a recent episode of 30 Rock, Jack tells Liz that when you realize you can “go lower” you find ways to escape your problems. I think this is a profound truth. We can always go lower.
4.Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. This is not a Russian book in any sense, but it did draw me into the world of Western marxist thought and by extension made Russia seem like a special place. I remember first learning of the existence of the Swedish marxist Goran Thernstrom's book What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules? and experiencing an unadulterated delight at the thought that the malign workings of ruling elites could be so brazenly exposed, not necessarily for all the world, but at least for that small coterie of my fellow marxist initiates to observe. A few years later I read the book, which didn't quite live up to its title. Oh, and this would have been around 1993: kind of a ridiculous time to become a marxist.
5.Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky. For someone like the me of my early 20's Trotsky was irresistible. A literary critic who could run an army? I probably wanted more desperately to imitate him than anyone else, and yet it didn't take. Today I couldn't be less Trotsky-ish (which is probably all the better).
6.Dostoyevsky, The Gambler. This book played a big role in my dissertation and is the only real act of literary criticism I've performed, however unsuccessful.

I don't want to take up too much space, so I'll just list the others, maybe returning to them later:
7.Stephen Kotkin, The Magnetic Mountain.
8.David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb
9.Henri Troyat, Tolstoy
10.Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward

1 comment:

  1. I for one would like to hear more about the Gambler and/or its influence on your dissertation. The elevator speech...