Leo Tolstoy, M.D.

No, Tolstoy wasn’t both a doctor and a writer. That was Anton Chekhov. Also William Carlos Williams. Tolstoy was just a damn good writer with a piercingly clear understanding of the human condition. Tolstoy was just the writer who wrote Anna Karenina, which William Faulkner said was the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy is just the guy giving me fits right now, because I’m reading Anna Karenina, and I’m having a hard time finishing it.

It’s not that I don’t like the book; I do like it. The writing is phenomenal, and he’s got a way of making a character absolutely come to life on the page. But I don’t love it. There are many long passages devoted to social commentary on the cultural and political situation of Russia in the 1870s, and those parts are pretty boring. Also, the novel is very, very, very long, and when I’m in the middle of yet another disquisition on the status of the Russian peasant, it’s dispiriting to consider just how much I have left to read.

So why not just quit reading it? “Life is too short,” a friend of mine said to me. “Reading is supposed to be fun.” Well, yes and no. It depends on who you are. The reading of fiction is certainly supposed to be fun — or at least entertaining — for the general reader. But if you’re a writer, you have other reasons to read, in addition to the normal reasons. A writer reads to learn how it’s done, to see what works and what doesn’t, to find techniques to emulate and clichés to avoid. Even as you’re seeking out and enjoying the entertainment in the work, another part of your mind is cataloging, analyzing, assessing, judging. I think that’s part of why I’ve become such a picky reader lately. When I’m reading a book that I really love, that analytical part of my brain goes dormant, and I just read for the pleasure of it. That’s such a good feeling, and I experience it so rarely.

So I’m sticking with Anna Karenina because I’m reading to learn. I’m writing what will be my first novel, so I want to read a great novel and learn from it. And a big part of the challenge of writing this first novel is just finishing the damn thing, because I didn’t finish the last one I started. I have a psychological dragon to slay here, and that monster is going down. And just as it’s important for me to finish the novel I’m writing, I think it will be important for me to finish the novel I’m reading. Giving up on it would send my subconscious the wrong kind of message at exactly the wrong time. Right now I need to display stamina and constancy, not fickleness and fatigue.

So I’ll finish the novel, even though it feels like I’m taking my medicine. I never did like the taste of cough syrup; but it gets the job done. And right now I’m all about getting the job done.

3 thoughts on “Leo Tolstoy, M.D.

    • Already read it. I think I need a change of pace, so my next canonical novel to read will be Beloved, which I haven’t read yet. And my next non-canonical novel will be Little, Big by John Crowley. I’ve already read Little, Big, but that was more than twenty years ago. It’s coming out on the Kindle next month, so I think I’m due for a re-read.

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