Dear Books: You’ve changed, man.

Books have changed. They used to be these great tomes of philosophical reflection, social commentaries and religious allegories. Now they’re all about getting on that best seller list and being accessible to our short-attention-spans and Level 3 national reading average.

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Literature, it seems to me, used to be a vehicle for something much larger than simply the story which was being told. It was a means by which authors could engage society in a conversation about larger issues, and put their own theories out there too. The story was a Trojan horse for their real agenda, whether that be spiritual, like C.S. Lewis, societal, like George Orwell, or metaphysical, like Tolstoy.

I just finished reading Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which may be why I’m thinking about this sort of thing at the moment.

The story of Anna Karenina is not at all about Anna herself; for the title character, she doesn’t get as much camera time as you would expect. I found that Anna and her love affair served as the backdrop upon which the character of Levin tries to figure out the meaning of life. As readers, we spend much more time with Levin and his thoughts, than we do with Anna, in her misery. Throughout the book, Levin desperately tries to find purpose and meaning for his life.

It’s a really interesting book, and deserves way more reflection and discussion than I can offer it here. While I was reading it, I found myself fascinated by so many things. Here are a few that I remember:

  • Gender relations and double-standards in the novel – why is Anna ruined by an affair and divorce and not Alexey? Why is her scandal such an unforgiveable scandal, why does it ruin her life and cast her out from society, meanwhile the book opens with Stiva’s affair with his nanny, and he continues to have more affairs through the book, and that is no big deal?
  • Family dynamics and parenting – the book presents us with a view of late 19th century Russian family life, at least that of the upper-class. Though to be fair, Levin does provide us with a peek in to that of the peasants. There seems to be so much distance between parents and their children, especially fathers and their children. Mothers aren’t expected to breast feed, they have wet nurses for that. Fathers are expected to educate their children…I’m not a parent, but I still found the theories on parenting and the way family life was presented in this book to be really interesting.
  • Money – there’s a lot of discussion about how much debt is acceptable, and how much is too much. When we think of these lavish lifestyles of the upper classes of the past, we don’t consider the crippling debt that they also undoubtedly taking on, which Tolstoy treats with consistent transparency throughout the book. It seems that we’ve always had problems living outside of our means.
  • Religion – most of the major characters in the book have a significant relationship or experience with religion as part of their narrative. The most significant are Levin’s and Kitty’s, I would think.
  • The symbolism of farming and nature – we spent an inordinate amount of time on Levin’s farm, which is difficult to get through as a reader because it can feel like you’re getting bogged down in the trivial details of farm life. Why do I care how many trees you cut down, or how your jam is being made, Levin? But it is through farming that Levin is able to express and explore his philosophical ideas, and separate from himself. There’s a purity in his relationship with his land which is enjoyable to read.
  • Love and self-love – everything Anna does is in an attempt to feel loved, but she needs a love that is so strong and overwhelming that it makes up for how little she loves herself. She ends up projecting her own self-hatred on to the men in her life, and that’s what ends up completely destroying her. Tolstoy really crafted such a tragic character with her.

Now that I’ve finished Anna Karenina, I’m switching gears to Isaac Asimov. Foundation, here I come!

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