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Reading: January 2021

2021-03-07

I’m already two months behind, but I hope that this is the first in a series. I’d like to track my reading, and if I post about what I read every month, then I’ll write more too.

Everything I read in January was relatively brief: two novellas and a short philosophical book. I’m not surprised: like everyone else, I’ve had a hard time focusing on larger projects of any kind. But I have to keep reminding myself to read fiction. Even when the books are dark—these were—I need fiction to get out of my own head.

Books

Notes from the Underground

Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Jane Kentish)

I think that this is my third time reading this book, but the last time I read it was more than twenty years ago. I wanted to read it again because I plan to read Invisible Man and Dostoevsky influenced Ellison.

[I]n this way you politely remind me that perhaps, in the course of my life, I too have experienced a slap, and that’s why I’m talking like an expert. I’ll wager that’s what you think. But rest assured, gentlemen, I have never received any slaps, although it’s all the same to me whatever you might think about it. I’m perhaps even a little sorry that I have distributed so few slaps in my life. But enough, not another word on this subject that interests you so much.

Dostoevsky channels impotent rage like nobody’s business, and I enjoyed the philosophical rants about determinism and “the Crystal Palace” in the first section. But the narrator quickly wears out his welcome, and the book drifts into clichés and incel territory once he pushes his way into a party with former schoolmates and meets Liza, a prostitute.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Leo Tolstoy (translated by Peter Carson)

Again, I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich before, but not in a long time. I picked this edition up because someone on Twitter raved about Peter Carson’s relatively recent translation. (I’d give them credit, but I can’t remember who it was.) The tweet led me to an essay about Tolstoy and Carson by Mary Beard, and by then I was convinced and bought the book.

All his life the example of a syllogism he had studied in Kiesewetter’s logic—“Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal”—had seemed to him to be true only in relation to Caius but in no way to himself. There was Caius the man, man in general, and it was quite justified, but he wasn’t Caius and he wasn’t man in general, and he had always been something quite, quite special apart from all other beings; he was Vanya, with Mama, with Papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with his toys and the coachman, with Nyanya, then with Katenka, with all the joys, sorrows, passions of childhood, boyhood, youth. Did Caius know the smell of the striped leather ball Vanya loved so much? Did Caius kiss his mother’s hand like that and did the silken folds of Caius’s mother’s dress rustle like that for him? Was Caius in love like that? Could Caius chair a session like that?

Tolstoy expresses the existential fear of annihilation remarkably well. He also creates abundant sympathy for a deeply unsympathetic character.1 Ilyich is a petty, narrow-minded conformist, and he shows little concern for his family or friends beyond his own self-interest. Tolstoy sets up the reader for a death-bed conversion, which he skillfully delivers and undercuts. Ilyich realizes “that he had not lived his life as he should have done.” Tolstoy leaves the reader no doubt: Ilyich has been wrong his entire life. Nevertheless, Ilyich, who is dying and in great pain, can’t see how to act on his new knowledge. For a moment, he tries half-heartedly to be kinder to his wife and children, but he quickly loses patience with them. Ilyich resents his family since they reflect everything wrong with his life. Once this all sinks in, Ilyich hopes to die quickly in order to relieve his family. He sees no other way to do “what is right.” At the end, Ilyich dies with some measure of peace since he imagines that he will no longer “make them unhappy.”

I wonder whether Tolstoy wants readers to be cynical about the ending. The novella begins with Ilyich’s wake and then moves backward in time to narrate his life and death. We meet Ilyich’s wife early in the novel, and Tolstoy paints her as a good match for the earlier Ivan Ilyich. She cares most of all about money, and she uses her husband’s agonizing death to gain sympathy for herself. On the other hand, perhaps Ilyich lived in a shallow world that he fully deserved, but at least he managed to achieve some dignity in death?

Relativism and Reality

Robert Kirk

I read this book because of an argument. A friend and I disagreed about Richard Rorty, and we read this book to think more about the disagreement. Kirk presents a survey of realist, anti-realist, and relativistic positions. He is openly a realist himself, but I think he presents alternate viewpoints fairly.

I started the book as some kind of realist, but by the end I mostly wondered why I care about realism as much as I do. I don’t blame—or credit—Kirk for my change in perspective. The conversation with my friend did most of the work, and also probably waves hands anxiously at everything.

Other

The Plague Year

Lawrence Wright

The New Yorker devoted forty pages to this detailed account of a year of COVID-19 in the US. If you followed the news, then the general story won’t be new to you, but Wright makes clear how terribly the Trump administration handled the crisis. On the other side, Wright shows scientists successfully producing a vaccine in record time and doctors struggling to treat patients during the surge. I’m glad I read the story, but I don’t recommend it. At forty pages, it reads like it should be either shorter or longer. All the way through, I kept thinking that I was reading Wright’s notes for a future book. I wasn’t surprised to see that the book-length version will be published this June.


  1. Jack London does the same thing perfectly in “To Build a Fire”. (I read this in December, but I’ll sneak it in here.) The protagonist mistreats his dog, and we dislike him right away. Nevertheless, London never lets us forget that the man will die a terrible death, freezing and alone. The story is under twenty pages, and London writes well, but I had a hard time finishing it because I saw what was coming and almost couldn’t take it. ↩︎