Dead Souls (New York Review Books Classics)

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A Calm Place to Think: On Reading the Classics

Like 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.

But 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.

For 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.

Surprise Me!

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