Why I stopped reading a classic

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a classic, or so I’ve heard. It’s one of those books so great and so worth reading that no one you talk to has actually read it.

A 700-page novel is something of a commitment, but I approached this one with an open mind and a daily subway commute. I’ve heard writers are supposed to paint with words, but if so, Dostoyevsky sure uses a lot of paint: five-page dialogues, chapter-length digressions, extensive and unhelpful discussions about religion, the narrator going back and forth in “by the way, I need to tell you about this” blurbs … and the list could go on.

All this in the midst of what could otherwise be a good story: a drunken, absentee father has three sons who aren’t exactly evil, but one of them ends up hating him so much that when the father is murdered, the son is accused of patricide. Sorry for the spoiler — I didn’t actually read that far — at page 200 out of 700 I was annoyed by the digressions, sick of being dragged again and again through the mud of human nature, and just plain tired of the verbosity.

Dare I say this about a classic? Yes. It was boring. Long and boring. Maybe if Dostoyevsky’s editor had studied fractions, he would have cut the length to 1/3 of the original. I really think a 200-page Brothers Karamazov would have been worth reading. After all, Lord of the Flies makes much the same point about human nature — but in a way that’s actually engaging — in a mere 180 pages. (Sorry, English majors, for the fits about my naivety that you’re having right now.)

It’s not that I mind long books. At over 1000 pages, The Lord of the Rings is a good read (mild understatement). And for something I’ve read more recently, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok clocks in at 400 pages, but is a very engaging tale.

So yes, I stopped reading a classic a third of the way through. Actually, the final nail in the coffin for me was when I found out (thanks Wikipedia) that The Brothers Karamazov was a great influence for Sigmund Freud. This was Freud’s favourite book? Ugh. No wonder I wasn’t enjoying it.

So, Dostoyevsky, I don’t know how you’d say this in Russian, but in English we say that “brevity is the soul of wit”. Witty, Brothers Karamazov is not. But then again … maybe it’s shorter in the original Russian?

25 thoughts on “Why I stopped reading a classic

  1. Reading any translated novel is tough. And the Russian novels are particularly dense. Only the very best translators interpret the culture as well as the plot/characters/etc. Don’t fret because Dostoyevsky is tedious. Millions agree with you, myself included. When I reread “War And Peace”, I skip whole chapters of mind-numbing philosophy in order to get back to the action!

    • Thanks, that sounds like good pragmatic advice. :-)

      BTW, have we met? Are you the Hilary W who works at Oyster? In any case, welcome to our blog.

      • No…that would be my mother, Hilary! I told her about your blog when you posted about me. Shameless promotion, I know, but it’s the truth.

        Thanks for the tip on what not to read…I think I got it for free on my iPhone, though, so no harm done.

    • War and Peace is Tolstoy.

      And I love Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky for the philosophy. These are rich stories with dense character development. But I hear where you guys are coming from. I think one has to hit on all those cylinders to enjoy it.

      The Possessed by Dostoyevsky is possibly the most plodding in the beginning. But at the end all of the strings come together in a dramatic chaotic cataclysm.

  2. Not my favorite Russian novel (as though I’ve read them all — ha!). I’m afraid I didn’t quite get it, even if I did plow through it all. Have your read Crime and Punishment? Great, even if dark.

  3. I agree with Eva, though I’d say it was my least favorite Russian novel yet and hope (for the Russians’ sake) it’s better in the original language–but it’s been the English speakers that, as you say, rave about it. I didn’t like the main character at all and didn’t get the most famous chapter at all. Yes, try Crime and Punishment but not when you’re borderline depressed. It will take you over the edge. But it’s at least interesting and stirring along the way. :) All that said, Russian novels just have a different aura about them, some to a lesser degree, some to a greater degree (The Idiot, for instance, which I quit reading early on)…which you either like, plow through, or get sick of.

  4. I love Crime & Punishment, too. I normally like all the psychological/philosophical stuff in Russian novels, but I haven’t read The Brothers K.

    I really enjoyed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Dostoevsky.

    I stopped reading War & Peace (Tolstoy) about 2 chapters in because all the gossipy soap-opera characters just seemed really boring, and I found it next to impossible to remember who was who with all the different Russian titles referring to the same person. I might try again sometime.

    Sometimes Russian novels can be hard reading if the translation isn’t fantastic, I think. Probably doesn’t help the boredom…

    • Maybe I’ll try Crime and Punishment next time — I haven’t read it. Know what you mean about keeping everyone straight.

      BTW, I think One Day in the Life is by Solzhenitsyn, not by Dustoffyourjetski. I appreciated it, though Franci and I tried reading it out loud together, and somehow it got to be too much for out-loud reading. But it’s a manageable 160 pages!

    • Hello everyone. I’m here to tell u this book is stupid and you shouldn’t read it. I read every single page of this book twice and to say its the worst book I’ve ever red is an understatement. So please I’m begging all the nerds out there that are considering reading this. Don’t, please go outside and live your life because Dostoyevsky is not worth the time of day.

  5. If you don’t read the whole thing (a highly commendable thing to do), you have to read the Grand Inquisitor – it’s towards the end of the book (I think) – it’s a parable-ish story that Ivan (Dostoyevsky) speaks to Alyosha.

  6. Chaim Potok has long been one of my favourite authors. Berwyn didn’t get far on Crime and Punishment. He was depressed by around page 2. Commenting on another post: we’ll pray for you, Franci! Love, Veronica.

  7. You did better than me. I have read all of Dostoevsky’s novels except Brothers Karamazov… I got to page 106 before feeling I was submitting myself to the most profoundly boring story about the stupidity of religious belief, its rituals, its morals, its obligations – for me it wasn’t so much the empty vessels of characters that put me off – more the exacting repetition of religious cliché. Saying that, I’m sure when it was written, it was a new idea to criticise religion as well as family relationships and pre-judgment. This in itself stops it being a classic in my opinion. Literally every other book I’ve read from Dostoevsky explores the human psyche in a far more revealing manner, is exciting to read and provides unconsidered knowledge to the reader in a timeless manner – which makes for a classic. The only other book that bored me as much as Brothers Karamazov was “This changes everything” by Naomi Klein.

  8. Your loss. Maybe the greatest novel ever written. Come back to it and focus. One of the most rewarding reads of all time

    • I agree. This book is not for the faint of heart and you have to “go into it” with a certain mind set. C&P is different book entirely and the two should not be compared. As Kevin says, you do really have to focus with TBK, but it is worth it … What it means to be human, how God plays a role, how the Devil plays a role effects life whether you believe in them or not. I could go on but I digress, you have to make time for this book and it is def not a subway read, too many distractions will make this book seem boring and nonsense.

  9. You are so shallow. One of the most important novels ever written and you don’t the have the intellectual chops to read thru it? What about A Tale of Two Cities! Les Miserables? All Quiet on the Western Front?

    Brevity is the soul of wit? That’s the best you can do? Pah! Einstein said that for every complex problem there is a simple, and wrong, answer. Your simplistic view of literature is laughable.

  10. I think the fact you found it “boring” says a lot more about you and your level of appreciation and threshold for dealing with complexity and profound psychological issues in literature, not the novel, frankly. Lord of Rings. Goodness me.

  11. If you haven’t read the whole book how can you possibly comment on it with any credibility? And yes, it is challenging. That’s because it’s complex and profound. It is regarded as a major probe of work, and studied in universities. It’s just you’re not intelligent enough to get it and lack the intellectual rigour and discipline and maturity to understand it. Clearly you should stick with easy to understand works like fantasy drivel.

  12. I loved Karamzov the first time I read it but I must admit having difficulty re-reading – though I am on a different translation (McDuff now as opposed to Peavear and Volokhonsky previously). So I can sympathise. But – ironically – I had similar trouble re-reading Lord of the Rings. I thought it was brilliant when I was 14 (though even then I had trouble with the third book and its biblical wafts – all that “And lo!” stuff). I have so far made two attempts to re-read and doubt I’ll manage. Tolkien’s prose just seems to … plain and flat.

  13. I just finished reading The Brothers Karamazov not 15 minutes before typing this.

    I think it took me two months to finish the book – which is longer than any other book I have read.

    My opinion is that it is a good book, but not as great as claimed. I found the characterization lacking, the story plodding, and the good parts few and far between. The Grand Inquisitor, as well as the father and nuts bit – are the two best parts of the book.

    These are just my opinions. I think it should be read, and I realize that I did not fully see the themes represented by the characters (which is why I will re-read the book in 10-20 years, and will keep it in my collection, out of the respect it has garnered from smarter, better men than I). That said, I was not blown away by the philosophical and religious points, I suspect because I am reasonable versed in philosophy and well read in the Holy Bible. The arguments were not new to me.

    On the one hand, I will re-read the book because I would like to better understand the work symbolically, but on the other great books (as Mortimer J. Adler said) are a meeting of the minds, often with the reader having to struggle to rise up to the thought of the author, resulting in increased understanding for the reader. Sometimes the reader can never fully rise to the author’s level, in which case that book will be endlessly re-readable – such as the Bible.

    Having read and loved Moby Dick and War and Peace – my opinion is that TBK is not on their level – when all the factors that make a great book are brought together, whether that be great writing, allegories, similes, analogies, themes, characterization and such, for me the book does not measure up.

    For example, Moby Dick impressed me with the sheer brilliance of the style of it, the ability of the author to go on meticulously detailed, yet fascinating digressions about whale anatomy, to the grand philosophical and religious themes and symbolism.

    I read War and Peace in two weeks. 1450 pages. The first 130 pages are merely setting up the story, and I admit I nearly gave up, but literally around page 130 it all clicked and I raced through that book like I never have any other book. Upon completing the novel I knew it was the greatest novel I had ever read and may ever read. I greatly look forward to re-reading it, as that was around 5-6 years ago.

    Paradise Lost is possibly the greatest epic poem ever written. Having LOVED the Iliad and the Odyssey, the language of Paradise Lost alone was magnificent, let alone the themes covered. I understood Paradise Lost without issue upon reading it, though I have heard many people have difficulty with it.

    I have read complex works of philosophy, theology, and books with heavy symbolism and allegory and understood them well enough. TBK did not capture me like I hoped it would. Upon reading the famous Grand Inquisitor chapter, my first response was – I’m not impressed.

    Regardless, as I said before, I am glad I read the book and will re-read it in the future. I may come to a different conclusion about the book then, but as it stands, it IS a good book, well worth reading, though I hesitate to call it a “great” book – putting it in the same territory as the above noted works.

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