I am in the mood to start reading a book that I will be proud to have read

doctor zhivagoI feel like there's a general agreement that there's very little one can do in life that will either provide lasting happiness or even a feeling of existential satisfaction. Nonetheless, there's something fun about doing difficult things. And doing those things is even better if society will reward you for having done them. That is why I like going to the gym. It's not particularly fun, but it feels like such a praiseworthy activity.

Reading books is also another arena for bolstering your ego.

I am sure there is someone out there who just picks up Ulysses and enjoys it and reads further onwards out of a sense of curiosity and enjoyment. Indeed, the fact that the book exists and is popular is due to the efforts of people like this. When the book came out, it was not yet a monument: there must've been a time when a person could've thrown it off to the side without feeling any sense of failure, because there was not yet an understanding that reading this book was a praiseworthy activity.

Nonetheless, when I read long and/or difficult books, there's almost always an element of ego involved. I simply want to be the kind of person who's read this book. Does that mean I don't enjoy the books? No. Bolstering my ego does not feel so good that it outweighs the boredom of ploughing through a book that I don't like. But in many cases, I would not've picked up or stuck with a book if that book had not occupied an important position in the canon of literature.

The only reason I am posting about this now is because I am in the mood to read something that will make me feel good about myself. So today I've conducted an exhaustive search and considered a number of candidates:

  • Crime And Punishment
  • Nostromo or Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad
  • Native Son, by Richard Wright
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison
  • Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
  • The Cancer Ward, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

And after looking through the first pages of a number of tomes, I have finally settled upon Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak. Looks pretty interesting so far, but I honestly could not tell you what it's about, except that it's one of those sweeping Russian family epics and has something to do with the Russian Revolution. It's entirely possible that I will abandon it. That does happen occasionally. For instance, I got a fourth of the way into the Canterbury Tales before deciding that life is toooooo short.

10 thoughts on “I am in the mood to start reading a book that I will be proud to have read

  1. WHM

    You’ve already made your choice, but when I’m recommending a book that fits the parameters you describe, it’s always The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov.

      1. WHM

        It is a bit of a darling for many readers. But I find that it get more out of it every time I reread it (up to 5 or 6 times now — I usually don’t re-read books). I find it interesting that you put it in the category of mystical and dreamy because part of what I like about it is that it’s very fleshy and earthy in its supernaturalness.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          Maybe I’ll get back to it someday. There were parts of it that I really liked. I was surprisingly into the Jesus flashback parts, for instance. I think the whole Walpurgisnacht element threw me off a bit, though (just as it did in Goethe’s Faust and in The Magic Mountain, actually. Somehow I and Walpurgisnacht just do not get along).

  2. Alastair Savage

    Doctor Zhivago seems weighty but it is beautiful, written by a poet. There are moments that will stay with you for your whole life, especially the ferocious Russian winter. It’s worth remember that it was such a hit in the west when it appeared because for many people it was a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain. People literally knew almost nothing about what life had been like in the USSR.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, the descriptions are so vivid. Even now, I’m remembering the hoarfrost that was so heavy that it almost seemed black. And I am happy about how this book takes up almost exactly (time-wise) where the works of Tolstoy left off. Personally, I don’t know anything about life in the USSR either, so it is a bit of a revelation. I’m only in 1911 now, but it’s interesting how fertile and exciting and political life seems to be.

  3. Rob Cobbs

    When you get to the in-book poem “Hamlet,” make sure you listen to it being read in Russian, so you can get a sense for its beautiful cadence and rhyme scheme. This one has a translation, but his reading isn’t quite as beautiful as it could be (Russian isn’t his first language): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tq25v-VG0Xw. There’s also this guy, but no translation, but it’s worth watching if only to see how this crusty old man is moved by the poem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nvew3xGr4Jc.

  4. Darren

    I went through a classics phase to feed my ego in my early twenties. I’ve read Crime and Punishment and Lord Jim (twice), but failed in my attempt at Nostromo. Doctor Shivago sounds interesting though.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, I’ve glanced at the first few pages of Nostromo on a number of occasions, but it’s never been quite the right time. Doc Zhivago is proving fairly interesting, actually. It’s not too difficult to read, except for the consistent confusion of having to keep the various characters straight. The Kindle makes it easy to search back for the first usage of each name, though.

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