A Calm Place to Think: On Reading the Classics

January 17, 2013 | 5 books mentioned 22 7 min read

covercovercoverLike many recovering English majors before me, I have a longstanding infatuation with heavy Russian novels. So on one level, a new edition of Dead Souls seems like a no-brainer: an excuse to return to a story that has endured for nearly two centuries.

Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece centers on a con man named Chichikov who is literally buying dead souls — or more accurately, serfs who have died but are still counted on official tax rolls. His journey sweeps through a swath of 19th-century Russian life, as he glides from landowner to landowner, trying to charm and flatter them in an effort to buy as many deceased serfs as possible. The book is smart and funny; it deftly unpacks the social structure of 19th-century Russian life. It says something profound about the dehumanizing effects of buying and selling everything. And it’s the first of the great Russian novels — predating War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and all the rest of those weighty tomes that pretentious undergraduates lug around to coffee houses. And that gives it mystique.

covercovercoverBut as I sat down to read Donald Rayfield’s new translation of the book, I felt a sensation I didn’t expect — guilt. I got to thinking about my reading over the past few months, as I’ve hopped from The Radetzky March to Jude the Obscure to Demons to Chekhov’s plays. All of them brilliant, and all of them properly vetted by the relevant authorities. And I realized I don’t want to get in the habit of “checklist reading” — paging through an old book for no other reason than to say I’ve read it. Ultimately, we live in a consumer society, and it is really easy to let the habits of consumption, the habits of a collector, seep into everything. Even our reading choices.

As Dwight Macdonald pointed out decades ago in his (now ironically canonical) essay “Masscult and Midcult,” “The chief negative aspect is that so far our Renaissance, unlike the original one, has been passive, a matter of consuming rather than creating, a catching up on our reading on a continental scale… We have, in short, become skilled at consuming High Culture when it has been stamped by the proper authorities.” And that’s why I can’t manage to love the classics without reservation. I am afraid that it is far too easy to read them passively — to get so caught up in their mystique that the words don’t matter. And I fear it would be very easy to get stuck in the books of the past, and miss out on newer ones that might relate more directly to the world as I experience the rest of the day.

coverFor example, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, while nowhere near as brilliant as Dead Souls, made a profound impact on how I think about contemporary media. Shields’s book-length essay, which came out about two years ago, is downright dismissive of the traditional novel, announcing, “To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.” But, more importantly, it backs up its iconoclasm with a fragmentary style that genuinely captures something about the way people read today. A literary collage that collects fragments (mostly) taken from preexisting works by other writers and then weaves them into a single “manifesto,” it is a genuinely unique work, one that captures something very real about our — or at least my — current reading habits.

Engaging with Reality Hunger’s bits of text made me more attuned to the way much of my reading — on Twitter, or just surfing online — consists of gliding between small bursts of words. Instead of presenting a clean, straightforward argument, Shields makes his case for collage-style writing through accumulation. His fragments build and build, until the reader is able to piece together the argument is his or her own mind. I do the same thing online every day. I read tweets and status updates and blog posts one after another, and eventually, I piece them together in my head to form a coherent view of the world. Shields’s book finally made me aware of something I had done unconsciously for years. This is what literature is supposed to do — call our attention to the way society or technology or history has shaped us.

Reading matters because of its relationship to thinking. What I love most about books is the way they force the reader to get involved. Unlike other leisure activities, a reader needs to actually participate in the experience. You don’t just turn a book on and enjoy it — you need to actively engage with the material, not only sorting out the words, but imagining what they describe. The scenes, the characters, the voices: all of it needs to be created inside the reader’s mind. In that way, reading itself is an imaginative act.

I’ve always seen a minor parallel between a reader and a concert musician — a pianist for example — just in the sense that both are taking notations written by someone else and bringing them to life. In both cases, the work of art as it exists on paper is mediated by someone else. A reader may follow the cues of the author, she may give every word her full attention, her emotions may stir in exactly the way they were intended to — but the images and voice she creates in her mind are hers. But they are not only hers — they are a collaboration between her and the writer. Alone among the arts, reading/writing involves mingling the thoughts of the artist and the audience. In a way, reading is itself a performance.

When a critic like B.R. Myers sniffs at contemporary writing by declaring, “Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread,” I immediately worry that an entire reading life spent rehashing books approved by the proper authorities risks turning a reader (like me) into a perpetual student, someone who treats literature as a way to check off titles on an imaginary syllabus. Someone passive. I worry those images in my head will be subsumed by what I think they’re supposed to be; what a well-known Gogol critic like Vladimir Nabokov thinks they should look like. I worry Dead Souls belongs to so many people, it might never belong to me the way a book really need to. I worry my performance as a reader will borrow to heavy on the performances of others.

And yet I want Gogol’s novel in my head. It remains a profoundly inventive book, with a narrator who comments on the story as it goes along, even to the point of upbraiding the audience:

I apologize. It would seem that a phrase picked up on the streets has slipped from our hero’s lips. What can one do? That’s the situation a writer in Russia finds himself in. Though, if a street word finds its way into a book, it’s not the writer’s fault, it’s the readers’, above all readers in high society: they’re the last people you will hear a decent Russian word from…

Harold Bloom has used the term “canonical strangeness,” and it is precisely an inherent weirdness that makes Dead Souls so hard to give up. Think of a symphony, where a certain movement may repeat in a slightly different key — the subtle repetitions built into Gogol’s text help build the absurdity, the humor, and the emotional force of his tale. It isn’t very realistic — life is not so well constructed — but that’s okay. It gives us an opportunity — if only an opportunity — to stand outside our regular way of looking at the world, and perhaps notice something we have been taking for granted.

The strangeness of Dead Souls, its alien subject matter and its realistic-but-not-lifelike narrative structure actually aid a reader’s performance precisely because, when taken on their own terms, they draw attention away from the process of reading the book. They demand so much energy to really follow, to navigate on their own terms, that the reader’s performance becomes, if not unconscious, at least less self-conscious. As soon as I realized that, my guilt about spending so much time immersed in old books began to melt away.

The way to avoid passive reading is to pay attention to what is on the page and engage it as best you can. This matters because reading offers us something quite rare — a quiet, solitary activity that allows us to clear a little space in our minds. This feels especially true in the context of my own daily habits, which involve spending an extraordinary amount of time online, a decidedly noisy, un-solitary environment that encourages the reader to respond — through retweeting, commenting, or “liking” — as opposed to reflecting.

Reality Hunger sticks with me because it made me more sensitive to the noisy media landscape I inhabit almost continuously. The book forced me to read actively by calling attention to just how I was looking at text. Its fragments made the fragments in my head all too obvious. Dead Souls does the opposite. It is quiet and strange and in some respects inaccessible; it uses a plot that doesn’t dwell too much on the rambling pointlessness of daily life; it is set in a past I don’t understand as much as I pretend to. It is the opposite of the tailored, easy-to-digest world of social media. With the right attitude, the right approach, its contrast with today’s fragmentary reading environment can be every bit as valuable as Shields’s effort to engage it.

The key is to take both together — to avoid getting trapped only reading classics, like Macdonald’s “catch-up” reader, or only reading fragments or bits of text online. The point is not to set up a dichotomy between old and new — and certainly not between “good” and “bad” approaches to writing or reading. What both Shields, with his contempt for traditional narratives, and Myers, in his contempt for everything else, both miss is that each kind of text — those grounded in the technology of the present and those insulated from it — is equally valuable, because it offers the reader a chance to perform (to think) in very different ways. Both matter because a good performer — good reader — is one with a lot of range, and the only way to develop that range is to perform as many different kinds of stories as possible.

In conversation, I’m fond of telling people that the difference between a work of art and a mere product is that art ultimately aspires to contemplation, while a product aspires only to consumption. I suppose my anxiety about turning the classics into a checklist stems from my realization that “art” exists only through collaboration between the artist/creator/writer and an audience; that it’s not the work that should aspire to contemplation, but myself. And that, as a reader, that means I need to be willing to work hard. To approach the performance of reading with every bit as much seriousness and effort as I expect the writer to approach the performance of writing. Art can’t exist without an audience to take it seriously.

The wonder of a book like Dead Souls comes from its silence, the way it offers us a calm place to think. But that place is only as valuable as the reader makes it. A calm place to think is only worthwhile if the reader seizes the opportunity to do some thinking. Perhaps it’s not really guilt I fell about the classics but trepidation — because at the end of the day the classics need to earned. So now, it’s up to me to put in the effort to earn them.

is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in Bookslut, The Brooklyn Rail, and Venus, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @GuysLibrary.


  1. Very thoughtful piece with a lot going on.

    I can’t speak to all of it, but let me speak to a speck of it.

    The first thing that jumped out at me is that there’s actually a new translation of “Dead Souls,” and by Donald Rayfield, who really knows his Russians. He wrote a great biography of Anton Chekhov that came out sometime in the late 1990s. Somewhat like you, I’ve obsessed over the Gogol novel a great deal, a by-product of my fascination with Nabokov.

    You write: “I worry those images in my head will be subsumed by what I think they’re supposed to be; what a well-known Gogol critic like Vladimir Nabokov thinks they should look like.”

    It’s a familiar worry. I loved “Dead Souls” enough that I read it in several translations, yet I never quite got the impression that I was enjoying the book that Nabokov enjoyed. He appreciated it on an almost mystical plane which, to me, never quite came across in English, which is why I bounced from translation to translation.

    To me, it was a very funny book, and one where the humor expanded into comic genius — a social parody about a con artist making money on nothing, on serfs that do not exist, which came to mind when I read “Catch-22” — particularly Major Major’s father, a farmer who supports himself with the money he gets from the government for not growing anything. And it made me think of Wall Street, too, of investments made based on imaginary projections that didn’t project or, in the case of Enron, purely fictitious entities

    But Nabokov — for him, it was all about “poshlost,” that untranslatable Russian word that is sort of like kitsch or camp, and which basically means the kind of illusory bad taste that pseudo-intellects ascribe to — not obvious trash, but trash that has this very sneaky appearance of being tasteful or refined.

    Supposedly Chichikov is a veritable avatar of poshlost, although when I read the book in my own crude non-Nabokovian way, I did’t really see it. I suppose I could see it if I squinted my eyes and I tried. But anyway, it’s not what I appreciate about the book.

    I once talked about all this on-line to a scholar of both Russian and Nabokov, and she was very helpful. She said that one thing you have to remember with Gogol is that his sentences tend to defy most translators, that he wrote these great swirling Russian sentences, and that these tend to get mangled in translation, even chopped up into shorter sentences.

    I think to appreciate Gogol the way Nabokov did you have to be Russian. Probably doesn’t hurt to be Nabokov either.

    I thought maybe the translation Nabokov swore by, the one by Guerney, might be the key, but to me it didn’t come across as any finer than the others I read. I liked all of them. They were equally funny and equally genius.

    Anyway, the thought of a new translation suggests that maybe I could revisit this old obsession.

    As for what you describe as “checklist reading” — “paging through an old book for no other reason than to say I’ve read it” — I can’t say I have much use for it, as I don’t know anyone who cares what I read one way or the other. I do love reading sometimes impenetrable classics of literature, though, and find that life isn’t as pleasurable or interesting without them, a fact that surfaces after I’ve spent too much time with books that are up to date and of the moment.

  2. Why not read the “classics”? Most of the masters, and masterpieces, of the 20th Century did not spring out of a vacuum. These writers were very much aware of the books and writers who came before them. It really helps to understand the context these writers were working with, or against. Even these texts we now call “classics” sprang from a context, reading past masters. I can certainly see the influence of Sterne and Cervantes on Gogol. Now, I can appreciate Gogol without knowing his predecessors, but it helps knowing these writers as well. The classic example for me is Connell’s Bridge novels. I love his comic creations, but it helps to know the other unheroic, baffled, comic heroes of the past. This passage for example, from Mrs. Bridge:

    “Suddenly, in total quiet, the room was illuminated by lightning. Mr. Bridge lifted his head, only that and nothing more, but within Mrs. Bridge something stirred. She looked at her husband intently.

    ” “Did the clock strike?” he asked.

    ” “No, I don’t believe so,” she answered, waiting.

    “He cleared his throat. He adjusted his glasses. He continued reading.”

    Now, as much as I appreciate this passage by itself, I hear echoes of Sterne, and Mrs. Shandy asking her husband, at a most inopportune moment, whether he had remember to wind up the clock. I don’t know if Connell was aware of this passage when he wrote Mrs. Bridge (I wouldn’t be a bit surprised), but prior reading of Tristram Shandy made me appreciate this passage even more. Feel guilty about reading the past masters? Not for a minute.

  3. I think the problem is that its hard to find any good contemporary novel today when the masterpieces are stuck in the middle of a sea of endless mediocrity, you don’t want to spend time on a book unless you have the consensus that it is good, and you can’t completely trust the mainstream either. The classics are those books that have weathered time and have reached us today.

    Its probably a problem for every generation, during the time of creation we have no idea whether a piece of work is a masterpiece or not, not until the books are still alive 10 or a hundred years later.

  4. If you enjoy a fragmentary style + dead Russians + brilliant thoughts!, check out Energy of Delusion, if you haven’t already.

    As to the article, I don’t think that reading something because it’s received as a classic necessarily amounts to checklist-bragging-rights reading. Literature is so referential that I think this in itself is some justification for reading classics. I find this especially true with Russian lit – if you’ve read Nabokov’s Life of Sebastian Knight – you know what I mean like the bit where his meeting with his mother is actually cribbed from Anna K. And in his Despair, all the Dostoevsky and Pushkin. But it’s not just Nabokov, it’s also Kharms, Bitov, Chekhov, Tertz, Babel, Bunin, Olesha- everyone… all of them seem to, at times, shoutout to Pushkin-Tolstoy-Dostoevsky-Lermontov and you are missing out if you don’t get these layers.

    Also I realize that ‘realistic but not lifelike’ was a passing description, but Gogol is not intended to be realistic or lifelike, and I was once told by a professor that I should only use the words realistic and Gogol in the same sentence if I was discussing how Soviet critics attempted to pervert Gogol’s works, hah.

  5. Perhaps part of the value of “classics” and the checklist phenomenon is that they/it put you in a place to cultivate that type of relationship with the text. Because other folks have validated the experience as worthwhile, one way or another, one’s mental focus going in to such an undertaking is resolute and focused. I don’t know about others, but I for one am more apt to sit and stew with a book if I know that it has lasted for a while.

  6. Just a note: The quote by Shields that you reference is actually a quote from another dead Russian: Prokofiev, and he was talking about ‘writing’ music.

  7. After I read Anna K and The Idiot pretty recently I realized that one reason I love these ‘weighty Russian tomes’ is that for some unknown reason they are like the literary equivalent of “comfort food.”

  8. A very thought provoking essay, Mr. Cunningham and serious readers know the conundrum well. Ultimately choices need to made. And a large percentage of my reading is the “classics” precisely because I expect them to contain food for thought. Lovers of the printed word need to be discriminate as reading, obviously, (unlike other Art forms) is very time consuming. Some classics have worn better than others and that’s where you , Mr. Cunningham the critic, come in.

  9. This good essay verifies that social media steals a person’s ability to read. As a published writer, I need to read the classics to know how language develops. As for David Shields, he lies in the shadow of the late and great writer Evan Connell who wrote two classics in that form decades ago–Points of a Compass Rose and Notes Found in a Bottle on the Beach at Big Sur, both suddenly back in print because of his recent death. It has all been done before and you must go there to learn before social media destroys everything.

  10. This is a brilliant essay, it brings together a lot of jumbled thoughts I’ve had myself since I graduated from a literature BA three years ago. I still find myself fighting the twin demons of a desire to read and, like you say, “make mine” The Classics, while trying actively to avoid the pitfalls of checklist reading.

  11. Alas, I wish there still really were “pretentious undergraduates” lugging classics to coffee houses.

    That’s the scary thing–we may have read these books to try to be classy, but now there’s not even that shaky reason for reading them.

    Besides, they’re “hard.”

    I fear for their future.

  12. “I do the same thing online every day. I read tweets and status updates and blog posts one after another, and eventually, I piece them together in my head to form a coherent view of the world.”

    — reminds me of what Joan Didion wrote in ‘The White Album’:

    “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. . . . We interpret what we see,
    select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially
    if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate
    images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting
    phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

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