One of my several shortcomings as a writer is a lack of discipline regarding what I read. I study lists of great books, must reads, and classics that any well-read person should have consumed, digested, internalized, but I don’t often bring home the classics. We all know the old excuse, “So many books, so little time,” and I have to keep up with contemporary poetry, don’t I? And I must allow for the relaxation of a good mystery or gobble up a collection of random essays to broaden my mind.
Among the many reasons why I choose to include a book in my ready-to-read stack, or don’t, is the length of the book. In a recent moment of guilt and despair over my ignorance, I bought a paperback of Leo Tolstoy’s famous classic Anna Karenina, (after all we almost share a name) that checks in at 736 tightly packed 5×8″ pages. The spine is two inches thick; it has 349,686 words. I was exhausted carrying it home. It required its own tote bag. I live in fear of dropping it on the dog, because it weighs almost as much as he does. He is, by the way, thoroughly bored with my staring at this large, inedible object. Dogs are smart.
However, I am on page 434 and have good intentions toward this sprawling novel. It seems to me that within it different readers might read different stories. Given the variety of plot lines in addition to the central character’s foolishness, I am drawn to the love story of Levin and Kitty. They have more sense than the others, although they share with their friends and families the ability to fall in love at first heated eye contact and to change moods ranging from despair to ecstasy within moments of each other. I skim the political and philosophical parts. I am impatient with Anna and Vronsky, who strike me as sleazy and selfish. Some readers will come away feeling pity for the wealthy women in 19th-Century Russian society. Had Anna been educated in more than fashion and manners, she would not have been caught between an unloved husband and a shallow count, dependent on these men for food and shelter. Some readers will focus on the potential upheaval and rebellion soon to result from the strain between the peasants and the top-heavy rich. Some will study the social mores that send Levin off to make a religious confession that he does not believe in. Some may delight in the emphasis on fashion and appearance. Inside this tome are many novels, and many of them worth the slog through all that verbiage. But it’s a jungle in there, or a Russian forest full of bears and elk. Whatever we call it, it’s big and I will feel courageous and virtuous for having read it.