Sunday, October 19, 2008

Warning: “Notes from Underground” Dangerous to Kids

“Unsafe at Any Read,” Lee Siegel’s essay in today’s New York Times Book Review, includes an account of the dangers of reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground as a high school freshman. Indeed, hearing “2+2=5” from a “great writer” could cause trouble at a formative age.

Thank goodness I didn’t happen upon Notes until college! Rather than finding a new math paradigm or excuses for additional irrational behavior, I found a cautionary tale about spite and illogic that continues to provide a helpful framework for reading about, yes, politics. Short version: Dostoevsky has provided lots of comfort this year. And I have Myra McLarey, a writer and high school teacher, to thank for guiding my senior English class through Crime and Punishment. I have yet to read that anyone from the group has taken an axe to a elderly pawnbroker. (At least two of us, however, work as writers.)

The fun of Siegel’s piece isn’t so much in its ironies – both within the essay or surrounding it, thanks to Siegel’s public persona -- but in remembering early experiences with (Russian) literature and how books change thinking. Please feel free to add yours as comments. For my part...

My first experience with Russian reading was Baba Yaga stories in Jack and Jill, a children’s magazine I insisted on renewing only because it occasionally contained news of Baba Yaga and her spinning house on chicken legs. Several years later, in sixth grade, a kindly teacher started a short story reading group for students who’d already sped through the entire set of color-coded SRA reading materials… it was then that I first read Chekhov -- “Пари” (“The Bet”) -- and learned about various types of irony.

As for practical influences of literature, one of the reasons War and Peace is still such a personal favorite is that its messages about plans and spontaneity fit my life: living in Moscow during the ‘90s and working as a freelancer during economic freefall have meant endless evolution and adjustments to my intentions and ideas. I’m glad I got stuck on the happy chaos of War and Peace rather than, say, the sick feeling in the pit of the stomach from another unforgotten favorite I read and loved in the same era, Sartre’s Nausea.

Photo: mzacha via stock.xchng


  1. Hmm, I think the first Russian stories I read were also Baba Yaga - I had a book of Василиса Прекрасчая with beautiful illustrations. As a teenager I fell in love with Russian literature properly, via Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky, then decided to study it at University...I enjoy reading about contemporary authors on your site because I don't know much about them :)

    I also lived in Russia in the 90s - the mid-90s in Moscow were quite something!

  2. That's funny, cat, that you also first read Baba Yaga stories. Those just fascinated me! I also remember reading "The Endless Steppe," about an exiled family and, eventually, classics, beginning with Chekhov.

    Moscow in the mid-'90s was definitely something! I was fortunate to have some fun jobs that included great travel opportunities.