Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science

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A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up

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After 74 entries, hundreds of books, and more additions to our reading list than we can count, sunset has come for our latest Year in Reading. The series was, if we can dispense with humility for a moment, a huge success, featuring more great essays written by more great authors than we’ll ever know what to do with. It also reminds us, as always, how thankful we are for our readers.

As for our contributors, this year’s roster was an eclectic bunch, including one Pulitzer Prize winner, two frontmen for popular bands, and all five National Book Award finalists, including this year’s winner. It included one novelist, Eimear McBride, whose debut earned high praise from James Wood just a couple of months ago. It also included our staff, which delivered, among other things, an awards ceremony in miniature and a poignant meditation on college life. It blew us away, in other words, and we’re just glad we can run something this wonderful, year in and year out.

Per a tradition started by our own Nick Moran (and partly inspired by our own Janet Potter), we’ll cap things off by handing out our own bespoke awards. If past years are any indication, these awards will immediately become very coveted, so if you happen to see one of the winners on the street, be sure to congratulate them profusely, or perhaps gaze upon them with a mixture of fear and awe.

First up: high accolades are due for those books which our entrants consistently named among the best things they read this year. Top honors go to Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, which got shout-outs from Eimear McBride, Jess Walter, Hannah Gersen, Rachel Fershleiser and Scott Cheshire. Leslie Jamison agreed with Scott Cheshire and Molly Antopol, respectively, in her choice of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and Charles d’Ambrosio’s Loitering. Our own Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was popular, as well — Julia Fierro, Mark O’Connell and Bill Morris all named it one of their favorites. Each book will receive a Millions Year in Reading Circle Award.

In the nonfiction category, The Favored Comrade Award for Interest in Russian History goes to Stephen Dodson, who delved into his enjoyment of Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science with a detailed aside about the motherland. In a long, comprehensive paragraph, he namechecked Peter the Great, Joseph Stalin, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, at one point describing how odd it is that Pavlov never received punishment for his criticism of Stalin’s regime. It’s a great introduction to the book’s topic, as is Nick Moran’s piece on Last Train to Paradise, which goes home (again) with a Golden Jetski for All Things Floridian. Maureen Corrigan, for her choice of a history of Dutch New York, wins the Van Wyck Award for Interest in Nieuw Amsterdam.

The Gutenberg Award for Time-Saving Technology goes to audiobooks, which allowed two entrants, Michelle Huneven and Julia Fierro, to read more than their schedules might have otherwise allowed. After reading an essay on Jane Austen, Huneven listened to the audiobooks of Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre, while Fierro used audiobooks to get some reading done while knitting. We salute them for their productivity, and resolve to take more advantage of the format in the future.

Speaking of new formats, The Franz Kafka Award for Not Just Thinking Outside the Box But Actually Setting It On Fire goes to Blake Butler, who devoted his remarkable entry to a book that appears only in his dreams. The book, which his dreaming self discovered while locked in a cage, is thin, nearly endless, and bound in transparent leather. Each page contains a color, “full and flat,” which his dreaming self could read, and — ah, dang. It’s beyond our description. Go read it yourself.

Our final prize, the Steve Martin Award for Total Honesty About Parenting, goes jointly to Mark O’Connell and Lydia Kiesling, who both wrote about their reading lives in the wake of new parenthood. Lydia, writing four days before her due date, set out a great list that included John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in spite of the palpable influence of “so-called nesting hormones.” Mark, after a year of reaching children’s books aloud, had some thoughts to share about new children’s classics: “Let me tell you, I read seven shades of shit out of Peck Peck Peck by Lucy Cousins.” We salute them both, and hereby grant them a night each of uninterrupted sleep.

And that’s it! Thanks go out again to our readers and contributors, and we hope you all have a fruitful end to the year. If you missed any part of the series, be sure to go back to our main entry for The Year in Reading 2014.

P.S. Thanks also go out to The Millions staff, foremost among them C. Max Magee, our singular founder and editor, as well as Adam Boretz, whose work on the editorial side made A Year in Reading possible. We also need to thank Kaulie Lewis for her work on social media, and, of course, all of our staff writers for their contributions to our year-end series and the whole year leading up to it.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

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I earn my living copyediting books, usually for Oxford University Press; while this is a reasonably pleasant occupation, and I often learn things from the material I edit, it doesn’t usually intersect with the range of books I read for pleasure and report on for The Millions. This year, however, I was lucky enough to work on Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, by Daniel P. Todes, a book I would have been glad to read under any circumstances and the most impressive biography I’ve read in years, in places having the feel of a classic Russian novel. Todes has a gift for explaining the details of biological research in a way that I, no science maven, could follow without difficulty, but I will leave to others the evaluation of the scientific part of the book; the aspect that enthralled me is indicated by the subtitle.  This is very much a Russian life, and because Todes knows Russia well (he has spent a great deal of time there and speaks the language), he gets the details right and puts them in an illuminating perspective, something all too rare in foreign accounts of things Russian. Chapter 1 begins, “Every Russian name contains a bit of family history,” and Todes traces the name Pavlov back to a peasant named Pavel who “became a reader and chanter in a small rural church in central Russia” during the reign of Peter the Great. He correctly identifies service to the church as “a rare means of upward mobility” in tsarist Russia, which sets up the drama of Ivan’s refusal to follow in the footsteps of his father the priest (who was furious) and rejection of the church in favor of science. Young Ivan got his only formal education in psychology, surprisingly, at the seminary, and Todes describes in vivid detail how he was taught. But reading materialist scientists like Ivan Sechenov and radical political thinkers like Dmitry Pisarev turned him permanently away from religion, and he never wavered in his unbelief, even mocking his wife’s faith until (in a touching scene) he realized how much it hurt her. Both he and his wife, Serafima, were strongly influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky (she considered her meetings with him “the most important moment in my religious life”), and there is a distressing account of how the great writer was cool to her until he realized she was a gentile (she was usually called by the nickname Sara, which he assumed was Jewish). The account of the young couple’s rocky road from extreme poverty to the security he achieved in 1891 as head of a well-funded physiology lab is riveting, and still more so is the even rockier road through the horrors of World War I and the October Revolution and ensuing civil war (in which he lost friends, coworkers, and his favorite son) to his final status as the hero of Soviet science, protected by his 1904 Nobel Prize and international fame. It’s amazing enough that a Russian born in 1849 lived to 1936; what’s nearly unbelievable is that Pavlov did so, dying in his bed of natural causes, while maintaining a firm and unyielding public opposition to the brutality of Joseph Stalin’s regime. Pavlov’s life intersected with those of many others, from Dostoevsky to Nikolai Bukharin, and I was particularly delighted to encounter one of his assistants, whom I had known from her literary work: “One newcomer to the IEM lab in 1924 was the writer Rita Rait-Kovaleva (then still known by her original name, Raisa Chernomordik), who would later translate Vonnegut and Faulkner into Russian.” It goes without saying that anyone interested in Pavlov will want to read this first serious biography, but anyone who cares about the modern history of Russia should do so as well. It’s one of those rare works that actually deserve the adjective “magisterial.”

Two very different works of criticism have changed my thinking about Russian literature in the last year. Peter Hodgson’s From Gogol to Dostoevsky is a groundbreaking look at perhaps the most crucial decade in Russian literary history, the 1840s, when the effervescent mix of styles and approaches that had existed until then was channeled into the socially conscious “realism” that we are familiar with from the classic Russian novelists. Hodgson takes as his focus the unjustly forgotten Yakov Butkov, an ambitious, self-educated writer from the provinces who died young and poor after publishing the remarkable collection Petersburg Attics (and a few other stories), and uses Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque to analyze Butkov and the other writers of his day: “There is in Gogol and Dostoevsky an obvious reluctance to westernize Russian fiction, a reluctance which is gradually being recognized as essential to the history of the forties…I intend to explore the connection between the grotesque in Gogol and Dostoevsky, and their reluctance to fall in line with Belinsky’s utilitarian naturalism.” I can’t even begin to describe the many insights into how these writers worked and how they were misunderstood by critics like Belinsky (and almost everyone since); I’ll just urge anyone interested in the period to go find a copy. The other work is Gary Saul Morson’s Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, which focuses on Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov, as well as Sophocles, George Eliot, and many others, to illustrate ways writers have found to avoid the determinism inherent in the idea of foreshadowing; Morson comes up with the term “sideshadowing” to describe an alternative: “sideshadowing admits, in addition to actualities and impossibilities, a middle realm of real possibilities that could have happened even if they did not.” Bakhtin is put to good use here as well; again, there’s no point trying to summarize, and all I can do is say I was sorry when it was over.

Like many Americans, I tend to pay attention to soccer only every four years, when the World Cup rolls around; this year I decided to remedy my abysmal ignorance of the game, and I read three superb books.  David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, almost certainly the best history of any sport I’ve read, brilliantly combines sporting and social history; to take just one of the many nuggets I got from it: “In a strained compromise [in 1908], indicative of the fundamental weakness of Italian ultra-nationalism, the ban on foreigners was rescinded in return for the official adoption of calcio as the name of the game rather than football.” I always wondered about that. Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics explained its topic so well, using diagrams and biographies as well as descriptions of matches (many of which are available on YouTube, at least in highlights), that I wound up feeling I was starting to understand how the game works. And Robert Edelman’s Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State taught me a great deal about the history of working-class Moscow as well as that of the soccer team whose long rivalry with Dinamo is comparable to those of Real Madrid with Barcelona and Celtic with Rangers; I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Russian game.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Positively Freudian


Chances are that your mental image of Pavlov is that of a man giving commands to a barking dog. However, as a new biography makes clear, the doctor who brought us his very own adjective has a far more complicated legacy. In The New Yorker, Michael Specter writes about the man behind the bell.

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