(This is a guest post from the League’s own Chris!)
Hello everybody, I’m Chris. You may know me from such comments as, “You can’t say that in public,” and “Why are you replying to me? Was I talking to you?!” Today I’m here to tell you a little about what I do when I’m not commenting at the League main page or one of the sub-blogs (I know what you’re thinking: Chris, you have time to do stuff besides commenting here? That I do surprises even me). I’ll start with what I don’t do: drive. You see, I sold my car a few years ago, and have since taken up bus riding. Let me tell you about it.
At first I thought bus riding would just be about getting from A to B when B was too far away to walk (and when you don’t have a car, “too far away to walk” develops an entirely different extension), but I quickly learned that my 40 minute bus ride each way offered an excellent opportunity to ease into my day in the morning, and decompress between work and home, where I would be required to parent, cook, clean, and spend “quality time” with people immediately upon arriving. And for me, the best way to decompress is to read. So for at least 80 minutes a day, while riding on the bus, I read.
In order to maximize the decompression coefficient of reading while bus riding, I came up with two rules. First, no phone calls: if you call me when you know I’m ridin’, somebody better be dead, or at least pretty damn near so. Second, nothing related to work. So most of my bus reading is fiction, with a bit of history and pop science (as long as it’s not related to cognitive science, so physics and evolutionary biology* are in, but philosophy and neuroscience are out).
After a few months of this, I made another discovery: with at least 80 minutes a day of bus reading, and more most weekends, I was going through books faster than my then graduate student budget could handle. So, being as smart as I am, I came up with what can only be described as one of the most brilliant ideas ever: read longer, more difficult books that I might not otherwise have read (though if asked, I might have told you I had read).
When you think of long, difficult books, which book comes to mind first? If you’re anything like me (and if you are, I’m sorry), Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the obvious choice. So I went out and bought War and Peace and for more than a month of bus rides, I read it. When I’d finished, not only had I accomplished something that most people only say they have, but I’d read a wonderful book, and saved mucho dinero in the process. As I said, I’m a friggin’ genius.
Since then, I’ve read a lot of really, really long or really, really difficult books. Some of them I’ve loved (being serious for a moment, I cried on the bus when I read the mother’s letter in Grossman’s Life and Fate; then I got off the bus, walked off the main road, and sat under a tree for almost an hour until I felt like I could join the world again), some of them not so much. I thought that here, as a way of telling you something about my “mindless diversions”**, I’d tell you about four of them that you may not have read, but that I really hope you will. Then you can tell me some that you think I should read.
Consider this also to be an invitation to take 80 minutes a day, or even every other day or so, to turn off the phone, turn off the TV, turn off the chores and the kids and the husband or wife (you’d be surprised how easy it is to do), and decompress with some books you never would have read otherwise.
August 1914 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (896 pages)
Some of you have just read The First Circle, the Solzhenitsyn novel that Jaybird recommended (and thanks for that, Jay, it is awesome). Remember how that book is really long and filled with too many characters to follow without a Rolodex? This book is just like that, but this time it’s set in the opening days of World War I, as the Russians invade East Prussia in support of their Western allies, who were at that moment being driven back 500 miles away. Solzhenitsyn’s beautifully wrought historical novel is an attempt to understand how the utter failure of tsarist forces, completely unprepared for modern warfare on this scale, and burdened by an antiquated command structure more devastating than the German artillery, precipitated a sequence of events that ultimately led to the rise of the Bolsheviks and the oppressive Soviet state.
Recommended companion to this book: November 1916 (1040 pages), also by Solzhenitsyn.
Petersburg by Andrei Bely (560 pages)
If you’re thinking, “560 pages, that’s not so bad,” then you haven’t read Petersburg, and if you haven’t read Petersburg, chances are you haven’t read anything like Petersburg. It is a symbolist masterpiece, championed by Nabokov, who remarked in 1965:
My greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose are, in this order: Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s Transformation, Bely’s Petersburg, and the first half of Proust’s fairy tale In Search of Lost Time.
So you know it’s good.
The story here is of secondary importance, but if you must know, it’s about the bumbling son of a quasi-aristocratic tsarist functionary who decides to be a revolutionary and receives as his first assignment the task of killing his father, during the lead up to the 1905 revolution. The real protagonist of this story, however, is the city of St Petersburg itself, and the many scenes within it that bridge the old world and the burgeoning new one, and paint a picture of a Russian society that was withering at the top and seething at the bottom. Reading this book is an experience, and I hope you try it for yourself.
Recommended companion to this book: Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (208 pages, because trust me, when you finish Petersburg, your brain’s going to need a break).
Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (544 pages)
I loved, and I mean loved, Magic Mountain (720 pages), so as soon as I finished it I immediately read Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years (400 pages), Death in Venice (80 pages), and Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (776 pages), but when I got to Doctor Faustus, I quickly realized that I had run into brick wall. Like Petersburg, this book is only of moderate length, but it is far and away the most difficult book I have ever finished (which excludes Finnegan’s Wake), and I had to start it at least a half dozen times before I was finally able to finish it, which I was finally able to do on the bus.
Unlike in Petersburg, here the story and its two main characters are the symbols, and all of Germany as it raced towards Nazism and global conflagration, is what they symbolized. Leverkühn is a composer of average talent who purposefully (on the advice, it seems, of the devil) sleeps with a prostitute who has syphilis, believing the ensuing insanity will allow him to achieve the greatness he feels is his birthright. Zeitblom, Leverkühn’s greatest admirer, and the story’s narrator, is old-fashione and sensible, but nothing he says or does can hault Leverkühn’s descent into madness.
Recommended companion to this book: Goethe’s Faust (512 pages), of course, while listening to Robert Johnson.
With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1135 pages)
Have you ever read a book that you immediately wanted to tell everyone about? This is that book for me. I actually recommended it to Jaybird in comments here just the other day! It is the first book in what the Polish simply call “The Trilogy,” an incredible telling of the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, first in this book as it is weakened a Cossack rebellion with the aid of the Tatars, and subsequently (in the next two books) by invasion. The story primarily follows Skshetuski, a fiercely loyal Polish knight and cavalry commander who survives injuries and lengthy sieges driven by hope of returning to his beloved Helen. Helen’s other main suitor is out to kill him (and he’s a dangerous, dangerous man), and much of the plot revolves around their conflict. It might sound a bit trite, but it is not. This is a masterpiece, and its tale is as epic as epic gets.
Recommended companions to this book: The Deluge (1290 pages, in two volumes) and Pan Michael (594 pages).
* I include evolutionary biology as a topic not even remotely related to cognitive science strictly to irk James H. You’re welcome, Hanley.
** I love that the name of this blog is both literal and ironic: the topic is diversions, but if you’ve read Jaybird’s posts on games, television, movies, or wrestling, Glyph’s posts on music, Mike’s Philomathy jokes, or hell, even Kazzy’s posts on basketball, you know damn well that they ain’t mindless.