I know the literary “canon” has some (understatement) problems with diversity. But I also think the dead white guy issue sometimes distracts from what we do have. The canon is flawed, but it is still a starting place for exploring the literature of other times, cultures, and countries. For that, I respect it. It’s a gateway (rather than a definitive list of “good literature” through the ages).
As part of my canonical college education, I read a lot of Tolstoy. Actually Tolstoy, Kafka, and Flaubert made up most of my “world lit” education (with some Camus and Garcia-Marquez on the side). I appreciate the (sometimes boring) precise style of the Russian novel. Chapters devoted to the exact hierarchy of the mayoral office might not be riveting, but from a critical perspective it is interesting.
In an attempt to diversify my reading in all directions, I decided to dive into the canonical Russians. Starting with the name I always accidentally spell as Google the first time I type it.
While the landscape of Dead Souls is stuck in place and time (and I mean that both literally and figuratively. There’s a whole chapter lauding the view of the undeveloped Russian countryside), the crux of the story is oddly timeless.
It’s all about a grift.
Chichikov wants the American, err, Russian dream. To elevate his status from educated middle class to landowning gentleman. But he chooses to take a shortcut. Instead of building his estate, he buys dead souls (deceased serfs not yet listed as dead on the tax polls) for cheap to mortgage for real money.
Dead Souls is a comedy (I mean, so I’ve heard, I can’t say it made me laugh) but its relevance to modern life is a little sad–and scary. There’s an allure to quick and easy that’s hard to pass up. Want to publish a book? For six grand you can hold a copy of your masterpiece in six months if you trade “traditional” for “vanity.” Start your own business? Join a sales downline, recruit six people who recruit six more people for a chance at six figures in twelve short months. Want to change the world? You could get #BOTG with your free time–or you could just share and retweet that one thing.
Sometimes the short term pays off. Sometimes acting quickly is necessary. But sometimes it’s just tempting because it gives visible results quick.
Sometimes we want people to see our progress more than we want to make progress.
I know I do… I do yoga every day. I’ve lowered my blood pressure and my cholesterol. It’s made me healthy. But it hasn’t made me skinny. And sometimes, for just that one visible reason, I start to think it’s not worth it.
When we hear the words “quick, cheap, and easy” we’re morally repulsed. We want to do things the “right way,” the “hard way.” At least that’s what we say…
But how often do we get angry (jealous even?) of people who took the easy way to our goals and see results faster? How often are we tempted, when no one else is around, to try that path ourselves?
Is Dead Souls a long read and a hard slog? Yes. But does it withstand the test of time? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll check the SparkNotes.
What are you reading this week?